Saturday, June 28, 2014

Whispering Hope -- Septimus Winner

1868 must have been an unusual year for the songwriter Septimus Winner. He was an experienced creator of musical numbers, yet not of hymns. So when he wrote one called “Whispering Hope”, perhaps in Philadelphia, apparently Winner’s lifelong home (see its flag here), he must have been motivated in a different vein from what typically sparked his productivity. Was he writing about his own hope, or rather to spur someone else’s? Was there a deep grief that afflicted him, as he suggests in the song’s refrain? And, how come he appended a name--a woman’s name, even--to this song that would divert attention from his real moniker? This song of hope is said to have been his last really successful composition (see song-writers hall of fame link below). What do you think Winner would have said if he were told this was his last winner?

Septimus Winner might also be known as Alice Hawthorne, a pseudonym (among many he applied to himself) that was used by Winner, this 19th Century popular songwriter who at the age of 41 was at the midpoint of his composing career. Hawthorne was a reference to his mother (Mary Ann), who was a relative of Nathaniel Hawthorne, a construction that Winner may have employed, like other prolific writers, that allowed publishers of the era to include a more apparently diverse repertoire in their song collections. Hawthorne was also a name reserved for perhaps Winner’s most touching songs, a group known as “Hawthorne’s Ballads”, including “Whispering Hope”. He’d been producing songs for 17 years by 1868, and would do so for another 17 years, but none of his other songs are readily identified as hymns among musical historians. This talented composer evidently wanted to say something at the age of 41 that he hadn’t deliberately said before, and would not say again. Nevertheless, he expressed something that resonates with believers still 150 years later. For a fellow who only rarely articulated his faith musically, his effort was not amateurish, but in fact pretty special.  It makes one yearn to hear more of the potential in Winner’s soul. We can only speculate about what else might have been. Add to that speculative venture a discussion of what was behind “Whispering Hope”. What was the ‘sorrow’ to which he returns throughout the song’s refrain?  Could it have been the rewards he may have regretted forfeiting, when he sold for a mere pittance ($5) the song “Listen to the Mockingbird”, which sold 15 to 20 million copies subsequently!  Winner was also scandalized by the American Civil War, landing in jail briefly for treason after publishing in 1862 a song to persuade (a failed attempt) President Lincoln to reinstate General George McClellan. He also wrote many other songs addressing the war’s issues during the period (see bottom link below); it wouldn’t be surprising if he still felt the war’s profound impact even by 1868 – certainly others did. Was he expressing something for his country, even?

Hope doesn’t come in like a gusty wind, Winner says. But, it does advance, if you notice in Winner’s poetry. In perhaps its infancy (Winner’s 1st verse), hope is indeed soft, and could be discounted while the ‘tempest’ rages. At night (verse 2), hope is only apparent like a star when juxtaposed to the inky darkness. Yet, it grows inevitable, like the approach of dawn. By verse 3, I’m hugging that hope like an anchor. No way it can drift, true? Could this have been Winner’s experience too, or what he witnessed among others about him? Is my hope growing louder, more certain now than before? How’s yours? Winner might say if you can still hear it, though it whispers, that’s loud enough.

See following sites for information on the composer and the song’s verses:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

O Listen to Our Wondrous Story – James Martin Gray

The scene: probably Boston, and probably more specifically the Boston Bible and Missionary Training School or perhaps the Moody Bible Institute. (See an early 20th Century picture of Boston’s Haymarket Square here, perhaps like what one might have seen at the time of today’s hymn’s creation. )  If you catch a glimpse of this theologian, you can imagine what such a scholar might want to communicate to those he was trying to shape. Did he pursue this songwriting mechanism to reinforce his lectures? See what you think.
James Martin Gray spent the middle part of his life in this New England area, and this included a particular point at which he penned “O Listen to Our Wondrous Story”, also known as “What Did He Do?”.

James Gray’s life at the age of 52 in 1903 had taken a few turns by this point, and would soon take another. Perhaps the words he composed in this hymn about a story summed up what he wanted to most communicate on either side of his 52nd year. In the 25 years prior to 1903, Gray had been intimately involved with reviving or starting several churches in the Boston area, so this minister of God’s message was quite familiar with the fundamentals of telling the Divine story. He’d also collaborated on the establishment of the Boston Bible and Missionary Training School (also later known as Gordon Divinity School) and was one of its faculty members, so he evidently wasn’t satisfied with preaching the story, but sought out a way to teach others how to tell it also. He didn’t stop there, as the hymn’s words show his passion for this story’s spread was still burning.  This theologian was a guest lecturer at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and was also awarded the Doctor of Divinity by Bates College in Maine, so he, and perhaps the compelling delivery of the story that he offered, was met with enthusiasm by many in multiple geographic areas. By 1904, the year after “…Our Wondrous Story”, Gray’s association with the Moody Bible Institute would deepen, as he became its dean, a role he would retain for many more years. For the next few decades, Moody’s student population and finances prospered greatly, and thus the capacity for broadening the story’s reach could be said to have prospered also.  Gray not only wrote about the story he cherished, but he lived it too, as a model, teacher, and administrator, and finally artist—as a poet and hymnwriter. This guy might be described as a multi-tasker, but really, he had one task that he variously manifested.    

The third verse of Gray’s hymn, not often seen in print, is unfortunately overlooked, as it identifies the person of the story.  Gray’s references to Jesus throughout the hymn are largely through indirect synonyms - - ‘One’, ‘God’s Son’, ‘He’, ‘Savior’. Was it Gray’s experience as a story-teller that told him by verse three to be more direct? Is that what some listeners need, ultimately, to know the name of the one being shared? Would that not also be the advice given to a missionary, whom Gray would have also been instructing in 1903? Sure, tell them God loves humanity, that He sent someone from His own side to save them. Jesus Christ is His name. No need to withhold that piece of information, Gray must have been thinking. Make sure you use that 3rd verse, when you’re singing, and otherwise. (Check it out at the first link below.)   

See the following sites for information on the song’s verses and a brief biography of the composer:

More biography of the composer here:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

O Happy Day -- Philip Doddridge

He was in the moment, thinking of some way to involve the listeners in his message, and so he composed some words to sum up his thoughts one Sunday. That is the most likely scenario that we could envision for one early-to-mid-18th Century day, when Philip Doddridge first introduced “O Happy Day” to believers whom he wanted to engage in a meaningful way. The Englishman was no stranger to speaking to a crowd, nor to writing poetry that he felt compelled to share, and so this came quite naturally (or, more accurately, divinely-inspired and mortally delivered) for Doddridge. It would be interesting to know whether the words he wrote were personal -- in fact about himself -- or whether he was pondering someone else and considering what that person might be thinking. Might he also have been thinking of an ancient king, of Asa of Judah (see picture)?  

Doddridge was one of England’s notable hymnists, but he never saw in print his own works, including “O Happy Day”, produced over a two-decade period. This nonconformist minister (versus those ordained in the established Anglican church of England) was used to going against the tide, both physically and spiritually. He struggled with his health, including at birth when he was almost given up for dead. His own parents died when he was a child, and this fragile boy was raised by friends who made sure he got an education. His mind was strong, though his body might have been weak, and so this brilliant fellow ultimately served as a minister for 22 years in a London suburb while instructing others in a theological school. It’s reported (from one Osbeck source, see below) that Doddridge most often composed each of his 400 hymns to mouth to the congregation as summaries for his messages delivered during this period between 1729 and the middle of the 18th Century. He didn’t want his own words published, apparently, so “O Happy Day” must have made its premiere orally, with the words not in print until after he’d died. Philip must have been thinking of someone’s commitment to God that day, as his words address what sounds like a wedding ceremony – a marriage between Christ and a new believer. Was he reminiscing about his own conversion or was someone else pledging him- or herself to the Lord that day? Perhaps this episode was the latter, re-inspiring Doddridge to recall the joy and wonder of this new life that ensues on such an occasion.

This time, Doddridge was probably mulling over what the people of God said to each other while in King Asa’s time (perhaps about 900 B.C.—2 Chronicles 15:15), over 2,600 years earlier. 2,600 years! It makes one ponder ‘does God’s message ever grow obsolete’? Doddridge had the same bible I can examine myself, to see the context in which these people of Judah interacted with their God, their nation’s leader, and with each other. They sought renewal, ridding their land of false gods. These were a people who’d strayed, and had felt the punishment of that lifestyle choice. Can you hear Doddridge preaching this? Whom in Philip’s own 18th Century time would this message have pierced? Himself? One of his friends, even one of the church’s members? To someone stinging from a skewed life, a turn to the true God and the reward from a loyalty to Him would indeed be cause for rejoicing. What a day, when I stop hurting myself, and I make a vow with Him who wants to cherish me! Is there an Asa or a Philip Doddridge within earshot today? Sure! Just crack and bible’s pages, or pick up the words of this hymn…they’re still speaking.  

See all five original verses, and brief biography at 2 sites here:
Information on the song was also obtained from the books  Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990, Kregel Publications; 101 More Hymn Stories by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs, by William J. and Ardythe Petersen, 2006, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Only in Thee – Thomas Obadiah Chisholm

He was 39 years old, and had recently been forced to change his vocational path because of his health. He’d been a minister, but Thomas Obadiah Chisholm found this venture in Kentucky didn’t last long, and so he and his family had moved to Indiana (see picture of this region of the country). It was during this disorder in his life that Chisholm wrote out the words for “Only in Thee”. What goes through someone’s soul and mind in a life-challenge like Chisholm’s? ‘Why me, God?’, someone moans. ‘What do I do now?’ Did Thomas Chisholm mouth these complaints? Maybe he did, but he must have come out on the other side of this period’s valley. Consider what he composed, and how it gives us a picture of this fellow.

Thomas O. Chisholm had been a lifelong Kentuckian from 1866 until about the time that he composed “Only in Thee”. His humble background began with his birth in a log house and life on the family farm. He was educated in a rural schoolhouse, where he became the teacher while still a teenager. So, though a modest environment nurtured Chisholm, he showed promise evidently. He wrote poems that were published in local newspapers (the Franklin Favorite, and the Louisville Courier Journal, among others) , and worked for these or other newspapers along the way.  If someone had asked him what he imagined himself doing for the rest of his life, would it have surprised anyone that he might have said ‘journalism’ or ‘writing’? His conversion to the faith also played a part in his development, obviously, and he ultimately was ordained as a minister. But, an undefined health issue forced a rather abrupt change in venue. Not only a change in career, but also scenery, came upon Chisholm and his family. They left Kentucky for Indiana, where this poet made insurance his vocational pastime, an endeavor that continued later as they moved to New Jersey. But, it was this change in direction, both physically and vocationally, that may have been on the mind of this 39-year-old hymn-writer. One would imagine he must have had support from his family during the change. His words indicate he had God’s support, too, for peace (verse 1), guidance (verse 2), and eternal confidence (last verse).  As mid-life (usually around 40 for fellas) appeared on his horizon, Thomas had the focus on something—rather, someone, namely God—that would not just hold him up, but lift him above the temporal. He called out as vain the ‘pleasures of Earth’ and ‘life’s trackless sea’ in his thoughts in 1905. It didn’t matter if he was in Kentucky or Indiana, whether he was a minister or a journalist or in the insurance business. He’d discovered that he only needed Him.

What might T.O. Chisholm readily say to you or me if he were still around today? Stability…that’s Him, as we look to Him as our Rock and Anchor..only in Him. But, He’s the one who helps us evolve, to change. We must, or we grow stale or decompose. What if Chisholm had been stubborn and decided he couldn’t leave Kentucky, that the Lord had called him to ministry even if it cost him his health, permanently? It seems that Thomas had realized what could change and what should stay the same as he approached 40. His life’s turn in 1905 and his testimony in the words he wrote are a good reminder which ones are which.    

See following for all four original verses:

See these sites for composer’s biography: