The Definitive Hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

I love reading about how the great hymns came to be. For some hymns, one writer sat down and composed lyrics and music. Others were collaborative, like the work of Fanny Crosby and Philip Bliss (wouldn’t it have been something to sit in on one of their songwriting sessions?) But some, like today’s hymn, came together more slowly. Originally, it was written as a poem by a young Methodist preacher named Robert Robinson, in the year 1757. But it wasn’t set to music until roughly 1813, when the tune is commonly attributed to John Wyeth. It also appears that he tweaked a couple of the lyrics to make them flow more smoothly with the music. Even today, you can encounter several lyrical variants depending on which hymnal you’re using.

The story of the hymn is fascinating, and I hadn’t heard it before looking up its provenance. Robinson was apparently a rather delinquent lad, but he was much struck by a George Whitefield sermon at the age of 17. Three years later, he sobered up and set out to become a Methodist preacher. A couple years after that, at 22, he penned “Come Thou Fount.” A helpful hymn collector has created sheet music with the closest thing to the original lyrics he could find.

Sadly, it appears that Robinson “wandered” from orthodoxy in later years, ultimately straying into Unitarianism. It was said that towards the end of his life, a lady riding with him in a stagecoach starting humming it and asked him what he thought of the hymn. He answered that he had written it, but he no longer felt the passion in his own words, though he “would give a thousand worlds” to feel as he did then. The obvious problem with this story is that there wouldn’t have been a tune for the lady to “hum,” since the melody wasn’t written until after Robinson’s death. So, there is good reason to believe that it’s apocryphal. Certainly, it would be a tragic ending indeed to the story of one of hymnody’s finest.

The version I’ve selected comes from Fernando Ortega, who can always be counted on to deliver a classy take on an old hymn. The way he starts quietly and builds the dynamics with the cello is excellent. Take a listen:

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The Definitive Hymns: “Old Rugged Cross”

I’ve featured several hymns in this series, but perhaps none more popular (or more definitively American) than this one. It’s been recorded by everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Alan Jackson. It’s a testament to a song’s classic appeal that it can sound great and timeless no matter what style you sing it in (okay, except for a style calculated to destroy any piece of music it touches, but we’re excluding things like heavy metal here). George Bennard penned the tune in 1912, after a disheartening night of revival preaching. How many ministers of the gospel have been there? This thought should definitely give a lift to anyone who’s hoeing that row!

As usual, my heart is with rich male harmony. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I name a quartet version of “Old Rugged Cross” as the definitive rendition. For fans of Signature Sound, this will be a blast from the past. Before they became household names with Bill Gaither, they worked with Gold City producer Garry Jones. In my opinion, some of the best music they ever did still dates back to this original lineup. “The Old Rugged Cross” shows them at their absolute best. Timmy Duncan’s young bass is featured in all its glory, while Garry’s golden touch on the piano wrings every bit of harmony from the music. The guys take their time with the arrangement, letting each word have its weight. I may be picky, but even I have to admit when something is pure perfection. For me, this arrangement is just that. In this very rare video, thankfully provided by fellow fan Kyle Boreing, you can see them gathered around and honing it with Garry before performing it on stage.

The Definitive Hymns: “Just As I Am”

It’s every Baptist’s favorite hymn today! Raise your hand if you’ve hummed along to this one while someone walked up the aisle. Just put it up quietly, nobody’s looking around… yes, I see that hand! Actually, today I must give fair warning: I’m breaking my pattern thus far and selecting an arrangement that pairs the words to a new melody. This is extremely unusual for this series. I can’t think of any other installment currently in the works where I’m planning to do this. However, in this particular case, the new tune really is that good.

The lyrics to this hymn were penned by Charlotte Eliot (1789-1871). In 1897, her nephew thankfully recorded the exact date and inspiration for them. They had their origins in Eliot’s physical sufferings, which as her nephew poignantly put it, “often caused her the peculiar pain of a seeming uselessness in her life while the circle around her was full of unresting service-ableness for God.” One night, she was struggling with an especially acute attack of depression. Her nephew recounts the following morning:

The troubles of the night came back upon her with such force that she felt they must be met and conquered in the grace of God. She gathered up in her soul the great certainties, not of her emotions, but of her salvation: her Lord, his power, his promise. And taking pen and paper from the table she deliberately set down in writing, for her own comfort, ‘the formula of her faith.’

Continue reading “The Definitive Hymns: “Just As I Am””

The Definitive Hymns: Be Thou My Vision

While I was pondering which hymn to feature next, the decision was made for me when one of my favorite men’s quartets recorded the definitive version of it just the other day.

If I were to quote the lyrics of “Be Thou My Vision” as it was originally written, you wouldn’t understand a word of it, because it was originally written as an Old Irish poem. Its exact date and authorship is speculative, and some attribute it to a 6th century saint. However, the woman who translated and versified it in the English form known today was Eleanor Hull, in 1912. There were many more verses in the original Irish than you will hear in a single English version. Among English versions today, you’ll typically hear “the standard four,” but occasionally, a lesser-known verse shows up. Here’s one revived by Revelation Trio (a great version, though not the one I chose for The Definitive):

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;

Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tower:

Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.

The tune is very simple and a bit repetitive, which might begin to try the patience if arranged without some variety from verse to verse. I personally find that it doesn’t really get old. The ancient prayer is perfectly translated and fits the tune like a glove. It cuts through all the kitsch and the price tags and the baggage that have glommed themselves onto Christianity over the years and strips everything down to the essential elements: father and son, son and father. Continue reading “The Definitive Hymns: Be Thou My Vision”

The Definitive Hymns: “There is a Fountain”

With increasingly less time to devote to blogging as the semester marches on, it’s clear that I need to open a category that I can update simply and frequently, which will also be of interest to my readers. To that end, I present The Definitive Hymns: a series in which I look at a favorite hymn of mine, explain a bit of its background, and then showcase my personal favorite version of that hymn. You are encouraged to share your own thoughts on the hymn and favorite version(s) in the comments!

Today, I’m beginning with one of the all-time greats: “There is a Fountain.” Lyrics originally written as a poem by the English hymn-writer William Cowper, music by American Lowell Mason. This hymn has a sad history behind it, but it’s a powerful anthem of redemption.

William Cowper suffered from deep depression for much of his life. In his letters, he wrote that it sometimes took the form of nightmares in which he was dragged away to Hell. Because of his illness, he struggled with the assurance that he was actually saved. When he penned the words to “There is a Fountain” shortly before his death in 1800, they were primarily a reminder to himself of God’s unwavering promise. He never dreamed that it would be embraced by the entire Church for  centuries to come. Continue reading “The Definitive Hymns: “There is a Fountain””