Sunday, March 18, 2018
He’d recently moved to a new city, and had a close and abiding connection with his God, something he probably really needed as he went about acquainting himself with new surroundings and people. Was it any different for Thomas R. Sweatmon than it would have been for you or me, as he mulled over “Walking Alone at Eve” in 1917, after having moved from his native Georgia to Louisville, Kentucky? Can anyone truly say he likes to be alone all of the time? Was this true of Sweatmon, or did he consider seeking out crowds, perhaps even at one of Louisville’s largest crowd-gathering places – the Kentucky Derby venue at Churchill Downs (shown here in 1901)? These questions must have crossed Thomas’ mind, not just for himself, but in order to consider the lives of people he contacted as a minister. Reading what this minister wrote one hundred years ago, you could conclude that he thought solitude was not such a bad deal.
The 41-year old Thomas Sweatmon was no stranger to music nor to people, since he was a minister and a singing school teacher by trade. He wrote the lyrics to a few dozen hymns in his lifetime, but probably contacted many more students and others to whom he ministered in his life, even by the time he penned the words to “Walking Alone at Eve”. So, what would have been on the mind of a minister who’d spent perhaps the bulk of his day relating to others, perhaps including dealing with some conflicts? Was ‘Walking Alone…’ a reflection of what he felt at the end of a typical day for himself, a need to decompress and just rest in the presence of the Divine One? Or, was it advice to others that he conveyed, a message that they too should ‘be still’ (Psalm 46:10)? Whomever the audience was, the sentiment for alone time with the Creator was not a one-verse phenomenon, for Sweatmon transmits this message in all three stanzas. He recommends star-gazing (v.1), dusk-watching (v.2), and meditation (v.3) as methods to enchant one’s soul with His eternal assurance. Drawing close to God was apparently not a spontaneous, accidental effort for this minister. To really hear Him and appreciate His ultimate gift was an intentional solitary experience, according to Thomas. Aside from his few dozen hymn poems and the details above, we know little else of Thomas Sweatmon, yet this much is clear: He made time for uninterrupted moments to search Him out, and he found Him. The hurly-burly of life didn’t drown out the whisper of Deity.
Is there a closet for me? Is there someplace away from the noise, but somewhere that I don’t risk suffocating seclusion at the same time? The movie Castaway (Tom Hanks) is one that alarms the solitude advocate, for can the human animal endure being alone? Would I not descend to calling a volleyball ‘Wilson’? Fortunately, God doesn’t enforce solitude on most of us in this way. He doesn’t expect me to adopt a monk’s habits for days or years at a time. Yet, don’t forget how Elijah was able to gird himself for life…listening to a whisper in a cave’s mouth (1 Kings 19). Thomas Sweatmon must have thought Elijah had discovered something valuable. Find your closet or cave – and Him, therein, at least for a few minutes.
Some scant information on the composer here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/s/w/e/sweatmon_tr.htm
Saturday, March 10, 2018
He had read Psalm 19, and thus offered his own re-articulation of what King David said. Was there also something that Joseph Addison saw or heard in his life of public service that prompted him to write about “The Spacious Firmament on High” in 1712? He and a friend (Richard Steele) had already been publishing a weekly newspaper, and it provided a convenient platform for Joseph’s thoughts about his Creator and how He shows Himself in what us terrestrials with eyesight can observe daily. Given the background and the gift for writing that Joseph possessed, the three verses he crafted lauding this planet and its life-giver were predictable, but no less noteworthy.
Joseph Addison could hardly have become anything other than the writer of “The Spacious Firmament…”, with a father named Lancelot whom he mimicked in many ways. Lancelot was a minister of the Anglican faith and a writer, roles that he passed on to his son. While Joseph attended college in anticipation, at least initially, of following in his father’s ministerial footsteps, he instead was ultimately more motivated by law and politics of the late 17th Century England. Upon graduation, he was appointed to a series of public service positions in the government (Commissioner of Appeals, Under Secretary of State, Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Chief Secretary for Ireland). His writing talent concurrently went into action in several newspapers, including The Spectator where the few hymns he authored were first published. For whatever reason, perhaps merely to reaffirm the faith he had inherited, Joseph wrote an essay for the newspaper to address the subject of faith development. He wasn’t an ordained minister, such as his father had been, yet he evidently saw or heard something that motivated his own take on the matter of one’s beliefs. His own reading of Psalm 19, which he references in a portion of this essay, largely spurred his verses. Were there other incidents that stimulated his thoughts, some questions that others had challenged him to answer about Divine existence? The preface to his essay suggests he was indeed making his case for God with the words ‘The Supreme Being has made the best arguments for his own existence…formation of heavens and the earth…’ . This essay and the hymn’s three verses therein were a fusion of Joseph’s legal education, upbringing, writing talent, and an evident internalized faith. The poetry of Addison merged with Franz Joseph Haydn’s classical music some 85 years later, as the latter likewise offered his own praise of God in The Creation.
Three individuals consequently had a part in propagating what came about in 1712. They were many generations, and even centuries apart, underscoring the vast import and timeless nature of what He did in the beginning that still captures the attention of us earthers. David was effusive in his opening six verses of the 19th Psalm, in much the same way that his poetic descendent Joseph Addison was over 2,500 years later; and, which the musical genius Haydn demonstrated three generations after Addison. All three have offered mere glimmers compared to the creation at which they marvel and to whom they offer applause. But, you and I are no different than David, Joseph, and Franz, as we’re all created beings, made by Him. Go glimmering on!
Information on the song was obtained from the books Amazing Grace – 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1990; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.
Also see the story and all three verses here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/s/p/a/spacious.htm
Friday, March 2, 2018
This 50-year old minister’s wife and editor had an outlook, undoubtedly painted by the experiences five decades had provided, that she shared in song. Being a minister’s wife, Mary Slade’s words in “Beyond This Land of Parting” could have been shared by her spouse to underscore a sermon message too. And she must have related some of her views in the journal where she spent so much of her time. And finally, the students she taught likely also heard the words she crafted here in yet another venue – the classroom. So, while not much has been recorded about Mary Bridges Canedy Slade, she nevertheless had multiple avenues to present the message that we see in four verses of prose still available today, nearly 150 years later. This is yet one more bit of evidence that even comparative unknowns like Mary (in addition to her more renowned contemporaries, such as Fanny Crosby) can contribute culturally and spiritually notable Christian artifacts, a blessing in more ways than one!
What Mary Slade wrote in 1876 gives us a window into the life of this minister’s wife, teacher, and editor. She evidently lived most or all of her life in Fall River, Massachusetts (see picture here), where she lived out these multiple roles. In addition to her spousal relationship with Albion King Slade, she reportedly wrote her hymn poetry for a professor (R. M. McIntosh) to whom she was also apparently close. We could imagine that she shared with these two men, as well as others, the valleys in her life-experience of which she wrote. In addition to what she shares in the song’s title, she also endured (or perhaps watched while others did) ‘losing, leaving…’ (v.1), ‘sighing, moaning, and weeping...’ (v.2), ‘sinning, fainting, failing…doubt(ing), griefs and dangers’ (v.3), ‘sickness and dying…’ (v.4). That’s a pretty lengthy list, right? Her response in each verse is not to wallow in all these down moments, however, but to gaze beyond to ‘the summer land of bliss’. ‘Fair and bright’ (refrain) would have resonated with many of her minister-husband’s hearers, who most likely shared with him routinely what struggles they bore daily. The students she taught also would not have been immune to challenges like those Mary described in her verses; a ‘happy summer land of bliss’ appeals to downtrodden children too. Mary’s experience as associate editor of the New England Journal of Education and later another publication called Wide Awake also put her in positions to help shape minds and give others a hope – one that everyone needs.
Was Mary Slade a ‘glass half-empty’ or ‘glass half-full’ person? Maybe both? She certainly did not wear the rose-colored glasses and saw plenty that an average person would say was gloomy. Yet, her riposte never wavers in ‘Beyond This Land…’. The beyond was her oasis. Furthermore, she might have drawn strength if she’d considered what else her four verses communicated, beyond the words and notes on a page. Three things stand out from Mary’s hymn: 1. The song itself, obviously; 2. Encouragement to all of us in life to contribute his/her gift, one that might endure for decades, or better yet centuries; 3. Each of us has multiple opportunities/avenues/roles for impact – a minister’s wife, a teacher, an editor – and can touch countless people with His hope. It’s His life, really, and so it never ends.
See scant information on the composer here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/s/l/a/slade_mbc.htm
See also here: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/nutter/hymnwriters.Slade_NB.html
See all the verses here: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/b/e/y/beyondtl.htm