Knowing hymn’s history makes it more meaningful

Published 12:01 am Saturday, June 22, 2013

Singing one of my favorite hymns can take me back to my childhood and my memories of growing up in church.  Hymns transcend time because their messages speak to universal needs like suffering, tragedy, and just living the Christian life.

“A good hymn should be like a good prayer – simple, real, earnest, and reverent,” one hymn writer has said.  Hymns inspire hope, trust, and faith by reminding us of God’s love and care each day, and of eternal life in heaven.  Many hymns were penned in the face of adversity and sorrow.

Eugene Bartlett, a noted music teacher, wrote several hundred hymns, most of them in a few minutes. Then, near the end of his life he suffered a stroke that left him confined to his bed, unable to speak.  Bartlett demonstrated his faith in spite of his condition and spent almost one month writing the words and music to “Victory in Jesus.”

One of the most prolific hymn writers of all time was Fanny Crosby, estimated to have written 8,000 to 9,000 hymn texts. Open the pages of any hymnal and you’ll find her songs such as “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” and “Have Thine, Own Way, Lord.”  My favorite Crosby hymn is “Blessed Assurance.”  I especially like the words of the chorus, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.

Fanny Crosby was known for her poetry before she began writing gospel songs. What makes her remarkable is that she was blind from six weeks of age due to improper medical treatment. During her 95 years of life, she memorized entire books of the Bible.  Horatio Spafford invested in real estate along the shore of Lake Michigan, most of which was wiped out in the Chicago Fire of 1871.  His family decided to take a trip for much-needed rest and to help with an evangelistic campaign in Great Britain. Due to last minute business issues, he sent his wife and four daughters ahead, expecting to follow them aboard another ship a few days later.

The ship on which his family sailed struck another ship and sank. His wife cabled her husband from Wales that she alone survived.  As he sailed across the ocean to join his wife, he was told about the approximate location of the ship on which his children perished.  Then he began writing, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”

Knowing these hymn histories makes the songs even more meaningful to sing. The Bible instructs us to speak to “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).  When I’m singing hymns with my voice, my soul sings too.

A great theologian once held up a Bible before a sermon and said, “This is the Gospel.”  And then in the other hand, he held up a hymnal and continued, “And this is how we remember it.”


Jan White is an award-winning religion columnist.  Her email address is