Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oh the Depth and the Riches -- Tillit S. Teddlie

He had just passed the halfway point in his life.  His hair was no doubt thinning and graying, yet he still had several decades in the future to live and model the Christian life, although Tillit Sydney Teddlie could not have known that when he wrote “Oh the Depth and the Riches” in 1938. What was happening in his life in Texas (see seal of this great state here) during this year in the midst of the Great Depression? Was he watching war storm clouds build on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean? The world’s economy and geopolitical events probably didn’t escape his attention, but we don’t know if or how much he dwelled on these things. His own history was focused not on earthly matters, but of things that would be much more permanent.    

Teddlie’s motivation for “Oh the Depth and the Riches” could have sprung from a variety of circumstances, although the precise incident that spawned it during his long life is not recorded. He evidently was pondering the great sacrifice of Jesus and its significance in his own life, its personal nature. Tillit wasn’t shy about using ‘I’, ‘me’, and ‘my’ in his three verses and the chorus (nine times they appear), hinting that this sprang from a moment (perhaps several strung together) in which he was alone with His Lord. His preaching experience in at least six churches over his life might suggest that he often developed his hymns during a sermon preparation time. Was he confessing and marveling over his own redemption during one of these episodes in 1938? Perhaps so, but he didn’t keep it to himself. The text, if it was birthed from some of his sermon notes, didn’t remain for his eyes only. He urged others to join in, to embrace this personal space with Him, by writing and having this hymn published for wide use. This hymn’s development and its message was a microcosm of Teddlie’s life experience, really.  This came from a 53-year old who’d go on to write over 100 songs, preach messages across Texas, and play a key part in drawing 1,000 people into God’s family.  He taught in singing schools for six decades (!), and ministered in churches well into his seventh and eighth decades of life, and even on occasion in his 90’s. What a life he lived until 102 years of age!  If anyone had fire, it was Tillit S. Teddlie.        

What would make possible a life lasting over 100 years? If Teddlie’s experience is an answer, perhaps it could be said it was a focus that expressed itself in many venues.  His was a Christian life, expressed in several ways. From singing schools, to preaching, to music publishing, to song composition, Teddlie was a multitalented character, some might say with a Texas-sized talent. He was a vessel, strong and yet submissive at the same time.  He might say ‘Discover His purpose for you, and then don’t stop until He’s done!’ Teddlie might have earned a rest, wouldn’t you say? I wonder if God is really through using him, though – look at all those songs, all those people he drew toward the Holy One through schools and messages he delivered. He’s not done yet. Neither am I. How about you? Will any of us ever be done, or grow tired of being used by Him? Tillit might give you an answer someday, if you go to meet him.       

Biographic information on the composer found in the following:
Also, here’s a link to a celebration of the composer’s 100th birthday:
See this site for further biographic information on the composer:

Monday, February 18, 2013

There is a Fountain – William Cowper

If you had been saved from death physically, as well as spiritually, how might you respond? Perhaps it could be said that both of these states of being were on William Cowper’s (see his picture here) mind in his 40th year in 1771, when he thought about his life and wrote some poetry that we know as “There Is a Fountain”.  It’s likely that he was reading some of his bible, and that his friends at the time influenced his thinking. Close associates’ influence on a writer’s creativity would not be uncommon, but particularly in this Englishman’s life, he needed friends to help sustain his mind and emotions.

An examination of William Cowper’s first 40 years need not be too in-depth to discover what drove him. He’d had many stress points as a child and adult, which eventually led to temporary insanity and suicidal behavior in the decade before his 1771 composition about “...a Fountain”. This fountain might have also been metaphorically described as his oasis.  The loss of his mother at age six, an uncle’s refusal to allow his marriage to a cousin, and finally an agonizing nervous tension over an approaching public examination for a clerk’s position in the House of Lords were some of the incidents that pushed him over the edge in 1763. With the care of a like-minded poet (Nathaniel Cotton) in an asylum, and later friends like John Newton (composer of Amazing Grace), Cowper recovered. It’s reported that Cowper’s allegiance to Christ was spurred as he read a bible (Romans 3:25) during the 18 months under Cotton’s treatment. Seven years later, in the midst of his friendship with Newton, Cowper was apparently reading his bible yet again – Zechariah 13:1. Was he still feeling the pangs of guilt rooted in some transgression, as he read about the fountain’s cleansing power? Were he and Newton perchance discussing grace’s startling effects? Was “… a Fountain” a herald of Newton’s efforts just a few years hence? (He composed his most famous ode apparently in 1773.) Cowper and Newton’s collaboration didn’t end with those two hymns, which were among the 300-plus hymns the two contributed to the Olney Hymnal that debuted in 1779.

Yet, Cowper’s roller-coaster life continued after the creation of “There Is a Fountain”. He had another serious bout with madness in 1773, which another friend, Mary Unwin, helped him overcome.  So, one might ask, ‘Did Cowper forget to keep drinking from the Fountain?’ We don’t know, but it’s likely that 18th Century medicine, particularly for mental health maladies like Cowper’s, wasn’t totally effective. Even today, mental health patients have relapses. But, Cowper’s therapy included devoted friends, like Unwin and Newton, and the Providential One of whom he wrote. He does intervene in life, Cowper concluded (see song-story on “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” elsewhere in this blog). This sometimes mad-composer continued to write poetry through the remainder of his terrestrial life in the latter 18th Century, while staying close to friends. And, two of the more obscure verses of Cowper’s “Fountain” hymn tell of his expectation to play a harp in the afterlife. These two verses –from the deep recesses of Cowper’s mind – aren’t so crazy, are they? If your life becomes unhinged sometimes, maybe you should access not just Cowper’s mind, but the remedy he found. In fact, you’d be crazy not to.
The following website has all seven original verses, including the last two that we contemporaries rarely see and sing:
Information on the life of William Cowper is found at:
See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The First Lord’s Day – William N. McElrath

Who was he? How old was he? Where did he come from, and where did he live? What motivated him to compose this song? Those are just some of the basic questions that emanate from the curious person (myself) who looks at the hymn “The First Lord’s Day”, written by one William N. McElrath in 1932. Rarely does one come across something like this – a hymn text, a composer’s name, the date of composition, but nothing else. Somebody evidently knew him, or we wouldn’t know the scant information that is available.

In most cases of anonymity, many avenues are usually available to provide some context to a hymnwriter’s otherwise unheralded endeavors. In this case, William McElrath’s age, health, and other details of his personal background are unknown, so the only recourse is to examine his recorded words and consider the context of the time. 1932 would have been during America’s Great Depression, but whether that spoke to William McElrath – or if he was even an American citizen--is invisible to us. The words of the song tell us more confidently, however, that he probably was thinking about Easter. Verses 2 and 3 suggest he may have been a nature lover, too. Birds, flowers, and green earth--words that he chose--tell us this was a man who perhaps appreciated the outdoors. Like other creatures God made, we humans respond to the resurrection with jubilation, by coming to life. Could that have spoken to McElrath in a physically frail episode? We can only speculate. Perhaps he’d been reading of the resurrection in the bible, girding himself for what lay ahead. Then there’s also the word ‘we’, that McElrath uses, too. He must have been writing for fellow believers, probably ones with whom he worshipped regularly. Since we have only this one hymn, we may gather it was his only one, and that he preferred to remain otherwise unnoticed.

Enough said? “The First Lord’s Day” and William N. McElrath tell us ordinary folks that we contribute too. God can use me. My name and my deeds may barely whisper across time, like this fellow.  That’s OK. Just one thing is essential. And it appears this guy knew what it was…it’s in his surviving poem. Can you say the same?    

Despite access to these hymn sites, little or nothing is known of the composer: (over 9,300 hymns, reportedly) (unknown number of hymns and composers detailed)

Saturday, February 2, 2013

And Can It Be That I Should Gain? -- Charles Wesley

He was feeling a renewal, a sensation that he hadn’t quite felt before, and was pondering the import of its source. He marveled, and had an outpouring for the remainder of his life that could not be contained from the summit of this experience. It must have been a pretty powerful moment. How could one describe it in secular terms…maybe like winning the lottery’s biggest accumulated sum, or the entire pile of brilliant gold bars from Fort Knox (see picture)? That’s how someone might think of an incredible acquisition, if they had never before heard of Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” written in 1738.  

Charles Wesley had tried to follow a calling, but he’d just returned to his homeland from a depressing experience abroad as a 31-year old. Although he had a discipline (and hence the name ‘Methodist’) that earned him a reputation and a college education, which seemed to culminate and affirm his upbringing and compel him toward the Anglican Church’s work abroad, Wesley was in fact not a committed believer until many years after his initial efforts in spreading the Christian message. After graduating from Christ College and signing up for duty in the Anglican Church, he and brother John (a preacher) went to the American continent to work in the Georgia colony. Charles’ authoritarian ways did not sit well with the colonists, however, leading to a short tenure in the new world. Soon after his return to England, Wesley had a faith- and life-altering experience at Aldersgate in London with Moravians, who showed him the void in his beliefs. Its effect was so far-reaching that his brother John also made a commitment to God soon after Charles did. One doesn’t have to wonder what the message was that transformed the Wesleys, for it is contained in the hymns Charles wrote, particularly “And Can It Be…”. Historians believe this may be one of two that he wrote soon after his conversion on 21 May 1738. His thoughts convey how stirred he felt, realizing that the Christ’s life intersected with his own. It was from the valley of depression, lifted to the peak of existence, which spurred Wesley to write the words that Spring of 1738.

Wesley wrote six verses to express his elation in his hymn. It hardly needs more exposition than its own words express clearly. But, Wesley’s poetry flows effortlessly, giving voice to what happened in this English gentleman’s heart 275 year ago. That someone, who had been seemingly an active believer for years, could write words as if he’d only just made a decisive breakthrough is enlightening. He felt the novelty of his discovery. Others might have hesitated to admit their actions prior to this had been empty, in light of the fresh news only just uncovered. Not so with Wesley. This news bulletin was indeed ‘good’ news, although the words Wesley uses indicate ‘good’ may have been too tame to describe his feelings. How about great? Awesome? Breathtaking? Use any superlative you want. His words still resonate today.   

Information on the song was obtained from the books  “Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions”, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990; “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs”, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006; and “Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories”, by Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson publisher, 2003.

More biographic information on composer:

Links to all six verses that the composer originally wrote: