Saturday, October 31, 2015

Christ for the World We Sing -- Samuel Wolcott

Samuel Wolcott’s heart was stirred, probably not for the first time, but this time the emotion spurred something like a seed that had been planted for some time to burst through the soil as if fertilized with an extra potent Miracle Grow. Samuel read some words that evening in 1869 in a church in Cleveland (see it here) that struck him in a new way, moving his spirit to say “Christ for the World We Sing”, perhaps as a pledge he couldn’t hold back. Maybe he was thinking about his experience one-quarter century before, or was it the accumulated chapters of his ministry since that point that roused him so? He’d been in many places, seen many faces, and must have thought there were some common themes, or maybe there was one overarching theme, in all the venues where he’d served. Let’s see what was on the mind of this 56-year old fellow.

Samuel Wolcott started out to be a missionary in a foreign land once, and maybe that’s still what he’d like to have called himself by the time he wrote “Christ for the World We Sing”.  It was one of the very first hymns he wrote, so knowing what spawned it is tells us something about its author. He wasn’t a guy bent on being a songwriter, this pastor who was already well past mid-life and had been in ministry already over two decades. Educated at Yale and Andover, his intent upon attaining his degree by his mid-20s must have been mission work, which he pursued in Syria between 1840 and 1842, before he turned 30. Apparently poor health forced his return to the U.S., where he spent the next 25 years ministering in four different states from the east coast to the Midwest, finding himself in Ohio where he would later still be involved with mission work via the Ohio Home Missionary Society. Domestic mission work was his calling one evening, as he attended a YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) meeting at the Plymouth Church in Cleveland. The banner that caught his attention said “Christ for the World, and the World for Christ”, an objective that resonated in his heart for sure. His own account of the incident says he wrote the words to the song on his way home from that meeting, a stimulus with a result perhaps unlike any he’d sensed before. It’s said that over the remainder of his life, until his death in 1886, he wrote a total of some 200 hymns, indicating he was composing more than 10 per year after this incident. He had a lot to say, evidently, and his missionary zeal still burned, perhaps as he considered his life’s 25-30 years in ministry and what he wanted to still accomplish. How would he do that, he must have pondered. Maybe it was songwriting to which he turned, as a new method to focus his efforts and influence the ‘world’ in which he lived.       

What can we say Samuel Wolcott did over the succeeding 17 years after expressing his heart’s longing about Christ and the world? If we presume his words were a pledge and encouragement to others, he did the following: he loved, prayed for, promoted unity, and rejoiced in his efforts (vv. 1-4). That’s how he thought to bring the world to Christ. It sounds like a winner, especially the positive vibes it would communicate to those on the receiving end. Who can resist feeling love and joy, having a purpose in common with others, and knowing others genuinely pray for your well-being? What other formula works, if this one doesn’t?  

The following website has a soundtrack, all four original verses, and the brief account of the song’s development:

See more information on the song discussed above in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990.

See biography of composer here:

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seeking the Lost – William Augustine Ogden

He was probably in Toledo, Ohio (see its map here) at what he must have presumed was mid-life, in his mid-40s. He was an educator, lover of music, and most importantly what might be called a signpost. But was that all William Augustine Ogden wanted to be at this point, a static pointer? One might gather from his words in “Seeking the Lost” that Ogden yearned to be more than that. Signs have a message, one that must be compelling to capture the attention of passersby. But, they cannot move, and so the opportunity to convey something important, even urgent, to an audience is largely confined to a slim moment, or perhaps multiple moments if the viewer/s travel in the same area repeatedly. William must have thought it made more sense to make the message mobile, to take it on the road and proactively search for broken people.

What life experience by 1886, when he wrote “Seeking the Lost”, had prompted Ogden to write persuasively the words about seeking wanderers? His music ear developed at a young age, so that he was studying and reading music by his 10th year, and later writing and singing in a chorus by 18. So, by the time he joined a volunteer unit in Indiana during the Civil War, music was a familiar chord in his life, so much so that it’s probable this carried him through the war. Indeed, his organization of a male chorus was renowned throughout the Army of the Cumberland. Had he known some of the generals of this army, perhaps Rosecrans or Ulysses Grant, or maybe Sheridan or Sherman? It’s not known if particularly Ogden’s music in this era helped promote faith, but it was not uncommon for soldiers to adopt religious tunes on the battlefield or in the camps before or after combat engagements. Perhaps this was where his own faith was first stretched to be intentional, proactive. Following the war, Ogden followed his heart and gathered more education, ultimately producing at least 10 song books. He became a teacher in the U.S. and Canada, including the superintendence of Toledo schools by 1887, the year after “Seeking the Lost”. It’s not improbable that his students in this northwestern Ohio area were among those he sought out with the message contained in his music.  But, unlike the martial nature of the war experience he’d endured, his prose endorsed a ‘kindly entreating’ (verse 1), a ‘mercy’ (verse 3) to draw hearers to Jesus. This was no doubt a quality any teacher would have needed to be successful. War and classrooms may not have had much in common, but Ogden evidently took something along inside himself in both venues that spoke to those around him.    

Do events from decades ago affect you and me? It goes without saying that this is true. William Ogden had a childhood filled with music, one that wasn’t blotted out by warfare and bloodshed, though he was probably shaped some by that episode. Some men must have come out of it embittered. What did it do for William Ogden? We know he took up his pre-war musical refrain, and 20 years later something was propelling him. Read his words and listen to his music, and you can detect a synergy there, a compilation of his life’s purpose, a God-given talent, and a light that peeked out from a great gloom two decades earlier. It must have been a pretty resilient thing, whatever it was. He is, isn’t He?

See these sites for biography of composer and the words to the hymn:
Information on the army of which the composer was a part earlier in his life:  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ring Out the Message -- James Rowe

James Rowe had expressed his feelings about his faith in other songs, but as he thought about the life he’d led, he must have thought he needed to say something more directly to those he called his spiritual family. “Ring Out the Message”, this 40-something Irishman exhorted. Don’t keep this news to yourself, he declared in 1911, even as you meet other nationalities or travel abroad. Get the attention of those within earshot with something like a ringing bell (like this one from Scotland, near Rowe’s native country). Indeed, was he thinking about his homeland, even after two decades of life thousands of miles from there? He’d jumped more than once between professional directions in the previous two-plus decades, and that must have painted his outlook in some way, too. Maybe he saw more clearly what was really meaningful, something worth underscoring for himself and others as he thought about how to spend the next phase of his life. What is paramount?

James Rowe had been through his share of life changes by the time his 46th year rolled around and he penned the words of “Ring Out the Message” (also known as “There’s a Message True and Glad”, the poem’s first line). From working for Ireland’s government, to travelling to America to work in the railroad industry in New York, and then switching gears once more to become an inspector in the Humane Society in his adopted state and country, Rowe had not been beholden to any particular vocational calling by the time he wrote “Ring Out..”. But he must have written plenty of lyrics for hymns by this time -- over 2,600 are credited to him over his prolific life – that proclaimed where his true allegiance lay. It’s said that James eventually worked (sometimes using the pseudonym James S. Apple) for music publishing companies in Tennessee and Texas, an indication that he ultimately did put more stock into his faith’s musical calling professionally. It’s not known what compelled Rowe especially to ‘ring out’ the Christian message in 1911, but it wouldn’t be surprising if his life’s changes had brought to light more clearly faith’s importance – its firm hold – for him. Did others around him not have this anchor, unlike himself? Were there people he still knew in Ireland to whom he called out--‘o’er land and sea’ (song’s refrain)? Or, maybe he knew ‘needy ones’ (verse 2) where he lived who needed the ‘true and glad’ news (verse 1). Who doesn’t?           

James Rowe really thought the ringing ought to be a happy sound, didn’t he? That presumption directs those of us who know the news where to look. Who needs a boost? James already tells us…sad (verse 1), needy, even destitute (verse 2) beings, and yes, those who sense the guilt of their wrongdoing too (verses 1 and 3). It’s shouldn’t be hard to find the dejected, though sometimes they’re well-insulated, maybe distracted. Hey, maybe if I shouted and laughed out loud more often, they’d wanna see what is so much fun! I have a co-worker whose college football tradition is to ring a cowbell really loud when his team scores. (I think it’s a Mississippi thing). Maybe that’s the mental approach…turn on the news channel, and leave it on as if it’s your most thrilling football game. Ring that bell a little louder.

See following for brief biographies of composer:

Saturday, October 10, 2015

All Day Long -- Anonymous

Whoever crafted the words may have been in the midst of a difficult day. At least, it might have been difficult by standards most middle-class Americans would consider normal. Might it have been in the middle of a cotton field, even perhaps like one in this picture? ‘It’s not fair’, or ‘I give up’ might have easily been the bitter words coming from the mouths of African-Americans who were responsible for the rich cultural tradition that we attach to the folk music we have today. Instead, this person wanted to say something in “All Day Long” that would draw his fellow travelers, his companions and like-strugglers, into a different emotional-psychological mindset. ‘Let’s not wallow, let’s look at this from a different angle’, you might imagine him saying. It’s an object lesson in how to make the most of one’s circumstances, and to look forward to something better.

Historians of African folk music suggest that its roots were largely in people engaged in struggle, making the words of songs like “All Day Long” so deeply meaningful. We know not the particular name of the individual who first mouthed the hymn’s concluding words about being ‘…on the King’s highway’, but we can guess, if the song’s traditional origin as an African folk tune is accurate, about his or her status. Many of the earliest hymns of this type derived from slaves working on plantations in the mid-19th Century. Others came upon the heels of this era, from those traveling to new areas in search of work as an exercise of their freedom, including along railroads through the old West. Blues and even some more contemporary rock-and-roll artists have their roots among the first African folk tunes. Was the artist a slave, or a fellow familiar with hunting work along the rail lines, perhaps dependent upon others for even his day-to-day survival? That would have been the kind of person who leaned heavily upon God for his protection, and who could have said he’d had ‘a glorious day’ at its end when his needs were met through providential intervention. What does such a person need, outside of God? ‘Nothing’, he might answer. Perhaps that’s why the song’s focus from the outset is on being with Him. Complete and utter reliance on another--even God; is that something you or I really crave?

“All Day Long” seems like a simple, harmless set of words, at least at first glance. If you’re like me, you may have sung ‘em around a campfire in a remote place, perhaps holding hands with others and examining the stars for the various constellations. That’s a peaceful memory. Am I willing to be with Him ‘all day long’ as the original writer might have been? In a place or situation that I do not control, I might think of being with Him as more than a choice. He’s essential -- in fact I won’t make it if He’s not there. Where’s that peaceful, warm feeling now? My cozy campfire, secure cabin, sleeping bag or bunk, and companionship of friends are indeed blessings from Him. But there’s more. He’s so much more.  

See this link for information on American folk music:

See link here for brief history of African-American folk music:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Way of the Cross – Jessie Brown Pounds

She loved her native area, the northern Ohio region around Cleveland, and was known for her many written works that spoke to the people of her birthplace. So, what did the 45-year old Jessie Brown Pounds endeavor to say, and to whom exactly was she speaking when she wrote “The Way of the Cross” in 1906? Was she at all influenced by her husband that she’d married 10 years earlier? And, what about her upbringing, and her parents’ backgrounds and influence on their daughter? And, the role of some of the educational institutions where she lived must have been at least somewhat important in the development of the young woman who aspired to be a writer from an early age. Her life experience shows the method God uses to promote His message musically.  

Several factors over a number of years converged in the spirit of Jessie Pounds in the early years of the 20th Century as she considered the way to live and make eternity certain.  Her father’s, Holland Brown’s, conversion to the Christian faith by Alexander Campbell led him to full-time ministry with the Disciples of Christ in northern Ohio, an area to which Jessie would be attached her whole life. Her mother was a schoolteacher, so it must have been second-nature for Jessie to study and glean lessons from not only her preacher-father, but also her teacher-mother. From her teenage years, she wanted to be a writer, and pursued this at Hiram College but had to relinquish a formal education due to poor health. It did expose her to the discussions among the institution’s learned professionals, however, and she was subsequently tutored as an editor for the Disciples’ Christian Standard publication. This budding writer would compose various tracts focused around the lifestyle of those in the greater Cleveland area—also known as the Western Reserve—over the next 40 years of her adult life. She married a minister, John Pounds, when she was 35, and his ministry in the Disciples of Christ must have also reaffirmed her inclination to write prose consistent with the group’s beliefs – Jesus and Him crucified, drawing others to Himself and Eternity. So, at age 45, Jessie was equipped to compose what she viscerally appreciated, a message that had been percolating for decades, in fact. It wasn’t her beliefs exclusively that she expressed in “The Way of the Cross”, but those also of her family, friends, and neighbors. ‘This is our core, how we plan to be transported from here to over there’, she articulates.   

She had a plan. And, she didn’t beat around the bush getting to the point when she wrote about her intentions spiritually. Her scheme is laid out in the opening sentence – ‘if I want to get home, the cross is the means’. It says something about her and others with whom she engaged in a common cause. Where is ‘home?’, someone might have asked before talking with Jessie. She and others like her would have wasted little time telling anyone what they knew. Now sure, there’d be lots more to say, and this writer must have considered how best to relate to whomever she encountered. But, after four and a half decades, Jessie had no lingering misgivings, no ‘maybes’ or ‘possibles’ in her song’s vocabulary. She knew. May we all.

Good biography of the composer: