In all the years that I’ve been preaching, I had never considered doing a preaching series about the Great Hymns of the Faith. Well, I dove in with both feet, taking a different hymn each Sunday for September thru October.
While attending seminary thirty years ago I remember how much I enjoyed the one class I had on Hymnology (the study of hymns). What intrigued me most were the stories of the people who wrote the hymns. More often than not the hymn was first written as a poem, later to be picked up by a song writer and published.
The question that persisted in my mind was why one hymn would catch on while so many others fell into the pile of anonymity. My findings are hardly scientific, nor am I an expert in this field. But allow me to share with you some of my observations.
The hymns that become well loved typically have a powerful personal story behind them. The writer of the hymn would have had a life-changing event that is conveyed in the song.
The tune of the hymn is simple to pick up because the words flow with the tune. Memorization becomes easy, enabling everyone to learn the song.
And despite the fact that the words in older hymns may be a bit archaic, there’s a certain “something” about the song and its story that resonates in the soul. We can personalize the experience in an esoteric way.
The first hymn I researched was written by Horatio Spafford. This wealthy,
affluent American businessman from Chicago had a succession of misfortunes and tragedies. First, his only son died unexpectedly. About the same time, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which destroyed most of that city, also wiped out Spafford’s real estate business. For the next two years in Chicago he worked to help the less fortunate recover from their losses due to the fire. Being a friend of evangelist Dwight L. Moody, he was invited to travel with the evangelist and his entourage to England. Business kept him from leaving right away, so he sent his wife and four daughters ahead. The steamer they were on was involved in a collision on the Atlantic. Hundreds died, including Spafford’s four daughters. His wife alone survived. He sailed to England to comfort his wife in their loss. While passing the location of where the ship had sunk, he experienced a calming of his spirit. When he later saw Moody in London, he said, “It is well.” Only the presence of God could bring peace to a troubled soul after such heartbreak. The hymn he wrote that we sing today is, “It is Well with My Soul.” It begins, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows role; whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”
The second hymn I selected was written by Reverend John Newton. This English preacher, who hailed from London, did not even grow up in church. His mother attempted to teach him about the things of God, but she died when he was quite young. His father was a sea-faring man and soon introduced his son to a seaman’s life. He engaged in the lucrative slave trade, transporting Africans to England and America. On a trip returning home, the ship was ravaged by a horrific storm, causing Newton and all on board to believe they were not going to survive. He prayed and experienced a “great deliverance,” as he put it. He did not immediately leave the slave trade, but made sure the slaves he transported were properly cared for. As he grew in his understanding of God’s love, grace and forgiveness, he realized he could no longer participate in this awful practice of slavery. He studied the Bible, learning Hebrew and Greek, eventually becoming a minister in the Church of England. He preached forcefully against the sin of slavery for the rest of his life. One congregant who sat under his preaching was a man by the name of William Wilberforce. Through the influence of John Newton’s transformed life and powerful preaching, Wilberforce became the lightening rod that brought about the end of slavery in England, and which carried over to America. Some historians believe our own Civil War was brought about sooner due to this one man’s influence. John Newton was so awed by God’s patience in working with him, he once wrote, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.” This best-loved hymn is, “Amazing Grace.” Of course, you know the first verse. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.”
The hymn for this next Sunday was written by Julia Howe. In the early days of the American Civil War she had occasion to visit Union troops in Washington, DC. She heard the soldiers singing a little ditty about John Brown’s Body, the fiery abolitionist. That night her sleep was interrupted by words she was compelled to put to the song of John Brown. What she wrote became, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” This powerful hymn that is at the same time both patriotic and spiritual, has become a classic. When I used to preach to Marine recruits, I’d always finish the service with this hymn and challenge these hard-chargers to sing this with everything they had. When they got to the chorus, singing, “Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!” they literally would raise the roof! I still get chills down my spine just thinking about that. Wow!
Well, that’s only three of the eight that I’ll be sharing. Stop by a Christian book store and pick up a book on hymns. It’s great fun, and you’ll be blessed