Saturday, November 28, 2015
She was nearly anonymous, and maybe a little clairvoyant? Could that be the two characteristics most often associated with the all-too brief career of songwriter Elizabeth King Mills? She had a notable spouse, and she also died as a young woman, but if the words of her hymn “We’ll Work Till Jesus Comes” tell us more, then we could also say she certainly put her hope and trust in Christ, and speculate that she in fact longed for the next life. Was she unhappy with her mortal existence, as one might surmise from her poem? What led to her early departure from the Earth? What does the work-energy model of you and me look like – a scientific equation (like one shown here), or some other model?
Elizabeth Mills lived only into her mid-20s in the early portion of the 19th Century, so perhaps much of her potential went unrealized. One might think that the spouse of a member of England’s Parliament would have had more recorded biographic information, yet relatively few details of Mills’ life are apparently known. She began life in 1805 in London as the daughter of Philip King, and later was the wife of Thomas Mills, a member of England’s legislative body. In April 1829 she died, but of what cause is unknown, though we can imagine it might have been considered tragic because of her young age – just 24 or 25. Was she aware of a health issue that could shorten her life? It’s another question without an answer, yet one might think she had some clue that earthly life held no guarantees. One of her handful of hymns, “We Speak of the Realms of the Blest”, was written just a few weeks before her death, and thematically hints of someone looking beyond this life. In fact, some of Mills’ other song poems have the same trait, not too surprising for a believer, but nevertheless perhaps revealing of her emotional state. “We’ll Work…” shows Elizabeth imagined a peaceful, restful home, a place where she could put aside earthly concerns. Was her life unhappy, maybe because of health or another kind of challenge? For her, songwriting may have been therapeutic, if this were true. Perhaps her circumstances also allowed her to grasp an elemental truth – mortality.
Elizabeth apparently accepted one fact, which led to her recognition of another. Not a lot of philosophical hairsplitting needs to happen to know the following: death is real, and I need an escape hatch. Do you suppose Elizabeth’s poetry evolved because her demise was imminent, cruelly thrust upon her? If so, she could have been bitter. Yet, she must have instead sensed that the other end of the life equation was not in doubt, courtesy of our Creator. I didn’t like math in school, but I think the math solution Elizabeth found is the one I need too. What about you? If He could construct me to work like this diagram above, do you think He’s got the other stuff in hand too?
See this link for scant biographic information on the composer: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/i/l/mills_ek.htm
See more information on composer here: http://www.hymnary.org/person/Mills_Elizabeth
See this link for the song’s verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/w/e/l/wellwork.htm
Saturday, November 21, 2015
His words published by 1890 and put to music probably were the subject of more than one sermon he delivered. Frank Bottome’s “The Comforter Has Come” (may also be known by its first line ‘O Spread the Tidings ‘Round’) was a declaration of some exciting news he wanted to share with hearers, probably as he considered the difficulties some of them could not escape. Certainly, some of them – in fact, all of us – need Him to come and be like the dove that alit on Jesus (shown here in the Portuguese painter Almeida Junior’s 1895 artwork). What else might have motivated this 67-year old minister to remind believers that God is still present, that His Spirit should not be forgotten?
Frank Bottome began and finished his life as an Englishman, and in between those two points began his life’s ministry and built his poetic resume that expressed his faith through music in America. Though born in north-central England in 1823, Bottome immigrated to the New World when he was 27 and began his work in the Methodist Episcopalian Church. As he turned 40, he’d received an honorary doctorate in theology, while also being active in music and ministry concurrently. He wrote a few dozen hymn texts, and also compiled several hymnals, including the 1890 compilation (Precious Times of Refreshing and Revival) in which his thoughts and zeal about the “The Comforter..” first appeared. Perhaps his words in the verses tell us all we need to know about the circumstances of its development. Verses one through three hint that human struggle was on Bottome’s mind, as the ‘woes’ (v.1), ‘wail’ (v.2), and ‘captive’ (v.3) nature of our earthbound days spoke to him. It’s likely that Bottome was engaged in reading about the Comforter described in John’s gospel (chapters 14-16) in the King James version, the bible translation most common for his time. Was it an aggrieved church member, even himself, or perhaps an unbeliever that he was seeking to encourage as he read from John and composed his poem? His role as a minister must have brought him into contact with many whose daily woes and captivity troubled his spirit. How does the average soul confront the ‘dreadful wail’ and ‘fury of the blast’, an unavoidable hurricane-like storm? As he approached his life’s conclusion in his late ‘60s, perhaps Bottome -- who lived just a few additional years, until he died in 1894 – wanted some reassurance himself. He apparently returned to England as he approached Eternity, and went on to the next life while in a small village in the southwest portion of that island nation.
Somewhere along the way, after Bottome’s original words expressed his thoughts, alternate language has been employed in the song’s verses and refrain, thus shining the light on another member of the Trinity. So, in some versions of the song, the “Comforter” does not make His appearance, while ‘the Lord of lords’ and ‘King of kings’ is lauded -- also very appropriate, but notably different than what Frank Bottome wanted to convey. It raises the issue of which members of the Godhead we should honor, or at least the modifiers of Bottome’s poem must have thought so. Why did Jesus send the Comforter? He wouldn’t have come, except that Jesus completed His mission first, and then called for the Spirit to accompany us in this next era. Our earthly days and our future days are both important to God, undeniably. We’ll see God. We can see Him now, too, if we look close.
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: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/b/o/t/bottome_f.htm
See all five verses here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/c/o/m/f/comfortr.htm
Saturday, November 14, 2015
It most likely coalesced in this 26-year old single young woman as she lived in northeast Ohio (see map here), and was influenced, at least indirectly, by her father. Jessie Brown (she later married a preacher named Pounds) may have even listened to one of her father’s evangelistic messages as she considered her musical question “Will You Not Tell It Today?”. It sounds like someone trying to prod a listening heart into action, so maybe it was a father speaking to his daughter, and she repeating the conversation. She also may have had an editor from one point in her life, and maybe even a president (Garfield), to credit for the poetry she composed that year. And, there may have been others in her world whose debates had stirred her spirit to self-reflection. Jessie was the product of a community, and so she reciprocated, someone might say.
Jessie Brown’s precocious childhood probably left very few acquaintances surprised at her progression and achievement as a writer-poet-composer. Her father’s conversion and eventual choice to become a pastor and her mother’s role as a schoolteacher undoubtedly influenced Jessie’s knowledge-seeking spirit in childhood. It’s said that this schoolgirl listened to lots of debates among the Hiram (northeast Ohio)-area intellectuals – including James A. Garfield -- as religion and politics were thrown about verbally. It was no accident that Jessie was a writing prodigy as a teenager and went to college at Hiram before needing to withdraw unfortunately because of poor health. She’d also been sickly as a child, and therefore most likely got a concentrated dose of her mother’s teaching and her father’s preaching in the home. When she was 15, Jessie was producing articles for Cleveland newspapers and faith-based publications, and later was mentored by Isaac Errett, the well-known editor of Christian Standard. She spent most of her life of 60 years in her native area, thinking and writing of life there. Much of her productivity was the at least 400 (some say 800) hymn poems she composed, reflecting the ardent heart she possessed for spreading the Christian faith. Her words in “Will You Not Tell It Today” were a product of the area’s local Christian community, the Disciples of Christ. The words sound like what might have been sung during an evangelism campaign, or what might have been more commonly called a ‘meeting’. The first two verses have her pondering personally the gratitude she has for her Savior, and how that compels the hymn’s question. Verse three turns the focus completely on hearers who’ve yet to commit. It’s a three-verse pattern very familiar to meeting-goers, certainly, and also to a young woman trained hearing others talk, teach, preach, debate, and urge others to a viewpoint.
Jessie Brown did what came easy for her, given the upbringing she experienced. She also loved her northeastern Ohio home, and left it only on occasion, it’s said. The nurture she felt found its way through her hands onto the pages of hundreds of songs and other written words, and so she was doing something that could be described as circular. What she received, she put back into her output, which fed her community, and must have fed her too so that she could go on repeating this cycle. Hey, that kinda sounds like a church, doesn’t it? Now you know how to get fed.
See following sites for biography of composer: http://www.hymnary.org/text/if_the_name_of_the_savior_is_precious_to
Saturday, November 7, 2015
It’s seems clear from his words over 20 years later that he was still affected by the experience. He had noticeable body scars and still wore a name that told others of that life-changing experience. Had he perhaps carried the flag of war for his unit in battle (perhaps not unlike the one shown here being carried by knights in about 1301)? Daniel Webster Whittle might quickly tell you or me that another event that coincided with his war likewise had a long-lasting impact. But, he could not have known that his reflection on war in “There’s a Royal Banner” (also known as the “Banner of the Cross”) would be picked up by another, one Lloyd Otis Sanderson, whose birth and songwriting milestones three generations after his own would have curious coincidences with his life. It would be interesting to see these two meet sometime, and marvel over how the musical Spirit might have been at work.
Daniel Whittle had a name and the war experience to match as he developed a hymn (one that a fellow hymnist would later enlarge) in 1887 that he must have wanted to relate to another, larger battle. He’d been in the U.S. Civil War, and having lost his right arm and still carrying the name ‘Major’— his wartime rank—he still thought plenty about how his life took a turn as a young man in his early 20s. He may have lost an arm, but he gained something else – a Christian faith – while imprisoned in a camp. His postwar experience eventually linked him to Dwight Moody and evangelism that became the purpose of his being. So, as a 47-year old one-armed preacher, it wasn’t hard for Major Whittle to tell others that life was a battle, and that it mattered what side you chose. Of course, choose God! Whittle’s memory, as a hospital-bound prisoner some 25 years earlier, probably still reverberated. Just check out the words ‘soldiers’, ‘crimson banner’, and of course ‘marching’ in his poetry, all conjuring mental images of what Daniel had known personally, intimately, even brutally. His words say ‘transform all that’: If you’re to be a prisoner-of-war, be one in Christ’s battle. You think that might have resonated with Lloyd Sanderson, too? He was a 47-year old, like Whittle, when he composed a fifth verse for the Major’s original hymn in 1948. It’s also interesting that Whittle’s life was ending in 1901 while Lloyd’s was beginning – Sanderson was born in May 1901 just two months after Whittle’s death in March of the same year. Is it just a curious coincidence that these 47-year olds carried Christ’s battle flag, through their verses in “There’s a Royal Banner”? As Whittle departed the earth, was Lloyd being prepared for a 5th verse? Perhaps it’s just a piece of trivia, but the Spirit has done some startling things, agreed?
Lloyd Sanderson’s verse includes a word ‘commander’ that would have been familiar to his musical ancestor, the Major. Did he wear a uniform, like Whittle, at one time? It really doesn’t matter if he did, or if you or I do. Daniel Whittle put away his uniform, but carried a flag still. Our commander may be in charge and be called the ‘Almighty’, but he still needs troops. Whittle and Sanderson did their part. They knew whose side wins. Do you? It’s not a hard question.
The following website has a soundtrack of all four original verses, but not the 5th verse composed by the secondary author: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/b/a/n/bannerof.htm
Also, see the primary composer’s brief bio here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/w/h/i/whittle_dw.htm
See more information on the primary composer of 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; and 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982. A biography on the song’s secondary (verse 5) composer is in the book edited by Gene Finley (1980), Our Garden of Song (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Co.).