Comfort, Comfort Ye My People

The hymn, Comfort, Comfort Ye My People, has been around for hundreds of years, but it may not be as familiar as some hymns of the same age.  Why?  Maybe because we only sing it once a year, during Advent.  Maybe because some congregations do not observe Advent.  Maybe, sadly, because some congregations no longer sing hymns.

French Renaissance composer Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561) wrote the tune GENEVAN 42, also known as FREU DICH SEHR, to accompany the text of Psalm 42.  In 1547, Bourgeois moved to Geneva and became the choirmaster for John Calvin.  His responsibilities included compiling, composing, and arranging music for the Genevan Psalter.  There was much controversy surrounding Bourgeois and his work.  He learned what we are still learning today  – change does not come easily.  He was jailed in 1561 for making alterations to popular hymn tunes “without a license.” After his release, he left Geneva, eventually moving to Paris where he died in 1561.

Bourgeois is credited with many of the tunes in the Genevan Psalter, a source for music in both the Reformed Church and the church in America.  Of all his compositions, perhaps the most famous is OLD 100th, which many protestant churches sing weekly as the tune for the Doxology.

The text of this hymn is a paraphrase of Isaiah 40:1-5, in which the prophet looks forward to the coming of Christ. More specifically, the coming of the forerunner of Christ,  John the Baptist, is foretold.  German hymn writer Johann Gottfried, better known by the Latin version of his name, Johannes Olearius, versified the biblical text into a hymn in 1641 in honor of Saint John the Baptist day.  In addition to being a hymn writer of over 300 hymns, Olearius was at one time a court chaplain, a professor of philosophy, and the author of a commentary on the entire Bible.

Olearius’s text was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) and published in her Chorale Book for England (1863).  For a time, Winkworth lived in Dresden, Germany, and there developed an interest in German hymnody.  She is known for her well-crafted English translations of German hymns including Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and Now Thank We All Our God.  In addition to her translation work, as a pioneer in promoting women’s rights,  Winkworth did much to encourage higher education for women.

The text of this hymn was meant to show the promise of better days ahead with the coming of the Messiah.  After the opening words of “Comfort, comfort ye my  people,” the remaining text describes how to impart that comfort.  This is not “comfort” in the sense of being “comfortable.” It is more like the comfort that a parent gives a misbehaving child after the consequences of his actions have been administered.   God’s comfort is more than empathy.  It removes the cause of the discomfort through healing.

“Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.”

For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.

Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken

We Gather Together

Think of the main dish on the menu for Thanksgiving.  You probably thought of turkey.  Think of a hymn about Thanksgiving.  You probably thought of We Gather Together.  Did you know that the words “thanks” and “thanksgiving” do not appear in the hymn?  Although it is a song of praise for the blessings God gives, it certainly  wasn’t written about the American Thanksgiving holiday.  The hymn is actually much older than the holiday we celebrate each November.

Here’s a little Dutch history for you.  Back in the mid-1500s, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and his son, the King of Spain, Phillip II,  were determined to wipe Protestantism out of the lands they ruled.  When a few Dutch Protestants rebelled by destroying some Catholic statues, the King responded by sending the Duke of Alba to restore order.  The Duke’s solution was to order the execution of those who rebelled along with those who helped the rebels.  It should not be a surprise to learn that the response to the executions was more rebellion.  Likewise, it should not be a surprise that the Duke’s response to the rebellions was more executions.  It was a vicious little circle.

Heavy taxes and other issues resulted in one big, chaotic mess.  Thousands of citizens of Antwerp were executed or fled into exile.   Peace did not return to the Netherlands until  Spain’s military strength declined near the end of the century.

Dutch author Adrianus Valerius wrote the poem “We Gather Together” (probably in 1597) in response to the troubled past with a look to a brighter future.  The opening words, which give the poem its name, are a clear reminder of the time when they were forbidden to gather for worship.

The poem first appeared in print in 1620s in a collection of Dutch patriotic songs, “Nederlandtsch Gedencklanck.” In 1877, Edward Kremser discovered it, translated it into Latin, and published it in Vienna.  The tune usually associated with this hymn is based on a Dutch folk song, and is named KREMSER in his honor.   The 1894 English text, by Theodore Baker, is not an exact translation of the original text, but still retains much of the original Dutch defiance.

We Gather Together  first appeared in an American hymnal in 1903.  It was the first hymn selected by the Dutch Reformed Church when, in 1937, they began singing hymns along with  traditional psalms in their worship services.   During World Wars I and II, Americans embraced the hymn as they could relate their fight for freedom from oppression.

The Pilgrims responsible for the traditional first Thanksgiving were escaping religious persecution. As we sit down to our turkey dinners and give thanks for all that has been given us, let us also give thanks for the freedom we enjoy to gather and to worship.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine;
So from the beginning the fight we were winning;
Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!

We all do extol Thee, Thou Leader triumphant,
And pray that Thou still our Defender will be.
Let Thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy Name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!


Eternal Father, Strong to Save

I’m nervous around water.  Not the water-in-the-sink kind of water, but the it’s-over-my-head-and-I-can’t-swim kind of water.  Water makes a lot of people nervous.  Storms make a lot of people nervous.  Storms on the water can be downright terrifying.  Have you ever had any storms in your life?  Those can be terrifying, too.

William Whiting was the headmaster of the Winchester College Choristers’ School in England.  In 1860, a student confided to Whiting that he was afraid of the ocean voyage he would soon be taking to America.  From a childhood on the coasts of England and a near tragedy at sea, Whiting’s faith in the God who ruled the oceans had grown strong.  He wrote the hymn poem Eternal Father, Strong to Save  to “anchor the faith” of his student.

Whiting found inspiration for his hymn in the words of King David.

Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.  They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.  For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.  They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away.  They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end.  Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,  and he brought them out of their distress.   He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.  They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.  Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind. (Psalm 107:23-31NIV)

Whiting’s hymn became widespread throughout England.  Through the years, some verses of the hymn were modified and others added as the song was adopted by various branches of the armed services of the United States and the United Kingdom.   The version found in many hymnals today is an 1869 revision by Whiting.

In 1861, Anglican clergyman and composer John B. Dykes composed the powerful tune MELITA to accompany Whiting’s hymn.  “Melita”, now known as Malta,  was a colony of the British Empire, and significantly, the site of a shipwreck of the Apostle Paul, described in Acts 27-28.

During World War II, the hymn was used at the funeral for almost all sailors buried at sea. If there was no band or recording available, it was sung a cappella by the crew or the words were read by the commanding officer.  The song was used in services for Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Walter Cronkite.  It has been performed at memorials for the crews of USS Maine, USS Cole and many more.  It was the last hymn sung at the funeral of Claude Choules, the last living fighter from WWI, at his funeral in 2011.  It is sung at shipboard Sunday services on many vessels, and is said to be the last song sung during the Sunday Church Service on April 14, 1912, aboard the RMS Titanic, just hours before it sank.

Whether we are experiencing the storms of weather or the storms of life, there is no reason to fear.  We serve the God who is greater than the forces in and of the earth.




For All the Saints

Some churches celebrate the Feast of All Saints on November 1.  Others set aside the first Sunday in November as All Saints Sunday.  As predictable as singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, those congregations will be singing “For All The Saints” sometime in early November.  The day is set aside to honor departed saints, whether known or unknown.   This hymn is often requested to be included in memorial services.  Dietrich Bonhoffer is among the many who have requested this hymn.

The tune most often heard today with “For All the Saints” is the majestic SINE NOMINE,  by gifted English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).  In 1906, Vaughan Williams composed the tune specifically for the text.   The name he gave the tune literally means “no name,” most fitting for All Saints Day.

The words were written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop.  In addition to his hymn writing, How was known for his work with the poor.  There is a memorial to him in the Cathedral of All Saints in Wakefield, England, where he was the first bishop.  He is buried in Whittington, Shropshire, England, where he served as rector for 28 years.

The words and music together give us a majestic hymn which celebrates the saints who have gone before us (“who from their labors rest”).   As the hymn unfolds, it tells how they found strength and courage through Christ and tells how we, as believers in Christ, are brothers and sisters, one family, relatives of those who came before us and those who will come after us.   We are told to have courage and be strong, for one day our rest will come and we will join the saints.  Then, we will see Christ in triumphant, glorious procession.


Come Ye Disconsolate

Turn on the evening news and your home will be invaded with the horrors of war, disease, famine and cruelty.   These stories aren’t just from some foreign land.  It doesn’t matter where you live.  Every nation, state, province, county and town has its own version of corruption, lawlessness and injustice.  And if that isn’t enough, many families turn on one another leaving hurting individuals to suffer alone.

Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it?

Life’s journey has never been and nor ever will be easy.  In the early 1800s, Thomas Moore (1779-1852) wrote a hymn that declares the answer to all problems is to come to Christ for healing and comfort.  He called his hymn “Relief in Prayer.”  Today, we know this hymn of invitation as “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”   Although the words have been modified through the years, the message has remained the same – one of hope and salvation.

Moore didn’t write very many hymns.  A friend of the famous poets Lord George Byron and Percy Shelley, Irish Catholic Moore was better known for his romantic ballads, including “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms” and the patriotic song, “The Minstrel Boy.”   The son of a prosperous merchant, Moore studied law, but did not find fulfillment.  He was awarded an Admiralty in Bermuda, but that didn’t work out for him either.  He eventually devoted his life to literature, was successful and profitable, but he was a poor business manager and died in poverty.

The lyrics found in modern hymnals are two stanzas written by Moore and altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), with a third stanza added by Hastings.

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Joy of the desolate, light of the straying,
Hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure!
Here speaks the Comforter, tenderly saying,
“Earth has no sorrow that Heaven cannot cure.”

Here see the Bread of Life, see waters flowing
Forth from the throne of God, pure from above.
Come to the feast of love; come, ever knowing
Earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove.

“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” (II Corinthians 1: 3-5, KJV).


Shall We Gather At the River

Multi-talented Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was a professor of literature, a Baptist and a music editor at Biglow Publishing Company.  Dr. Lowry once said, “I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative, receptive congregation than write a hymn,” yet he wrote nearly 500 hymns and gospel songs, including Shall We Gather At the River?I Need Thee Every Hour, Low in the Grave He Lay, and All the Way My Savior Leads Me.
The tune is named HANSON PLACE in reference to the Hanson Place Baptist Church Lowry was serving when he wrote this hymn.  The text refers to the scripture passage that says,  “Then the angel showed me the river of life, as clear as crystal, flowing form the throne of God and of the Lord…” (Revelation 22:1)

Lowry described the writing of the hymn this way:

“One af­ter­noon in Ju­ly, 1864, when I was pas­tor at Han­son Place Bap­tist Church, Brook­lyn, the wea­ther was op­press­ive­ly hot, and I was ly­ing on a lounge in a state of phys­ic­al ex­haust­ion…My imag­in­a­tion be­gan to take it­self wings. Vi­sions of the fu­ture passed be­fore me with start­ling vi­vid­ness. The im­ag­ery of the apoc­a­lypse took the form of a ta­bleau. Bright­est of all were the throne, the heav­en­ly ri­ver, and the ga­ther­ing of the saints…I be­gan to won­der why the hymn writ­ers had said so much about the ‘riv­er of death’ and so lit­tle about the ‘pure wa­ter of life, clear as crys­tal, pro­ceed­ing out of the throne of God and the Lamb.’ As I mused, the words be­gan to con­struct them­selves. They came first as a quest­ion of Christ­ian in­quiry, ‘Shall we ga­ther?’ Then they broke in chor­us, “Yes, we’ll ga­ther.” On this quest­ion and an­swer the hymn de­vel­oped it­self. The mu­sic came with the hymn.”

Shall We Gather at the River
Shall we gather at the river,
Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide forever
Flowing by the throne of God?

Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, the beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.

On the margin of the river,
Washing up its silver spray,
We will talk and worship ever,
All the happy golden day.


Ere we reach the shining river,
Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver,
And provide a robe and crown.


At the smiling of the river,
Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints, whom death will never sever,
Lift their songs of saving grace.


Soon we’ll reach the silver river,
Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver
With the melody of peace.


Work, for the Night Is Coming

The text for ‘Work, for the Night Is Coming” was written in 1854 by 18 year old Anna Walker Coghill (1836-1907) and published in a Canadian newspaper.   Ten years later, it first appeared in a hymnal paired with a tune by Lowell Mason (1792-1872) and has since appeared in over 1000 hymnals.

The clear and persistent ‘call to action’ of this song is based on John 9:4 which reads, “I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.”

1. Work, for the night is coming,
Work through the morning hours;
Work while the dew is sparkling,
Work ’mid springing flowers;
Work when the day grows brighter,
Work in the glowing sun;
Work, for the night is coming,
When man’s work is done.

2. Work, for the night is coming,
Work through the sunny noon;
Fill brightest hours with labor,
Rest comes sure and soon.
Give every flying minute,
Something to keep in store;
Work, for the night is coming,
When man works no more.

3. Work, for the night is coming,
Under the sunset skies;
While their bright tints are glowing,
Work, for daylight flies.
Work till the last beam fadeth,
Fadeth to shine no more;
Work, while the night is darkening,
When man’s work is o’er.

Be Thou But Near

Johann Sebastian Bach.  Often considered to be the organist among organists and the composer among composers, many of his melodies are instantly recognizable and familiar. And such is the case with the song we are looking at today, Bist Du Bei Mir or Be Thou But Near.  There’s just one little problem.  Bach didn’t write it, even though there is a lot of printed music out there that says he did.

Bach, however, does have a strong connection to this piece.  Bach and his wife, Anna Magdalena, copied this song, along with many others, into Notebooks.  This was music for her to study and enjoy, but not necessarily written by composer Bach.  As hard as it is for me to imagine that a composer as prolific as Bach didn’t use only his own tunes in making a gift for his wife, there is something very humble in the notion that he was not only familiar with the works of others, but willing to include them in this very personal compilation.

So then, who wrote this song? The melody was most likely composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stolzel as an aria for an opera, first performed in 1718.   The original score of the opera no longer exists.  The manuscript for this particular aria had been part of a German music library until it was lost during World War II.  It was reportedly rediscovered in 2000 in the Kiev Conservatory.

The song is often used at weddings because of the text.  We do not know who wrote the original German poem of 31 words, but it essentially tells the beloved that ‘as long as you are with me, I can face death with ease.’



It Is Well With My Soul

Their story began quite happily.  Anna Larson was young, lovely and intelligent.  Horatio Spafford was a businessman and senior partner in a successful law firm.  They married in 1861 when Anna was 19 and Horatio was 33, and had a beautiful home in Chicago.  They were devout and active Christians, Ira Sankey and Dwight Moody among their friends.  Horatio was active in the abolitionist crusade and their home was a frequent gathering place for many of the reform movements of the day.  Life was good.

The Spafford’s circumstances then began to change.  Scarlet Fever took the life of their 4-year-old son in 1870.  The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 took almost every real estate investment they owned.  After the fire, they put their faith into action, devoting many hours to the survivors.

In 1873, Spafford arranged for his family to go on vacation to rest and have time to recover from the tragedies.  Since their friend Dwight Moody would be preaching in England, they decided to join him there.  Last minute business delayed Horatio’s travel, but Anna and their four daughters,  Tanetta (11), Elizabeth “Bessie” (9), Margaret Lee (5), and Anna “Annie” (2) set sail aboard the S.S. Ville du Havre.

Nine days later, Spafford received news that the S.S. Ville du Havre  was in a collision at sea.  The ocean liner sank in just 12 minutes, and 273 perished.   Anna, found unconscious and clinging to a piece of wreckage, was among the 47 survivors.  All four daughters drowned.  Anna sent a cable to Horatio saying, “Saved alone.  What shall I do?”

As quickly as could be arranged, Horatio left for Europe to join Anna.  As he passed by the spot believed to be the final resting place of the Ville du Havre, he wrote, “It is well; the will of God be done.”  He wrote “It Is Well with My Soul” based on those words.  Spafford did not dwell on the tragedy.  He fully realized the comfort that only God can give, the peace that truly passes all understanding.  Horatio and Anna later had three more children, and moved to Jerusalem for mission work.

It Is Well

Horatio Spafford manuscript of “It Is Well with My Soul”

Composer Philip Bliss was moved by Spafford’s witness and powerful words.  He wrote a lovely melody specifically to go with the lyrics, and the song was first published by Bliss and Sankey in 1876.  Bliss named his tune VILLE DU HARVE, the name of the sunken ship.  Philip Bliss wrote many hymns and tunes, including “Wonderful Words of Life,” “Almost Persuaded,” and “(I Will Sing of) My Redeemer.”

Philip Bliss and his wife died in 1876, shortly after he composed the melody.  A bridge collapse caused a train wreck.  Bliss survived the accident but went into the flames in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue his wife.

These stories are tragic yet true.  Our lives are made up of joys and tragedies, too.  My prayer is for each of you to know the peace and hope Horatio Spafford knew.










Children of the Heavenly Father

Here’s what we know:  The author of the hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father”, was Karolina Sindell-Berg (1823-1903).  She was Swedish, small and sickly as a child, and very close to her Lutheran pastor father.  With 650 of her 2,000 hymns appearing in print, she is sometimes called the Fanny Crosby of Sweden.  Among her best known hymns are “Children of the Heavenly Father” and “Day by Day.” Swedish singing star Jenny Lind provided the front money for the first printing of Sindell-Berg’s hymns.

Karolina Sandell-Berg

Karolina Sindell-Berg (1823-1903)

Here’s what we don’t know:  There are multiple possibilities of what prompted Sindell-Berg to write the hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father.”  One version has it that when she was 26 years old, she and her father were boat passengers of an ill-fated lake crossing. Her father fell overboard and she saw his drowning.  The English translator of the hymn, Ernst William Olson, thought this was the case when he titled the hymn “A Hymn Born of a Broken Heart.”

Another possibility is that she wrote the hymn earlier, possibly in her late teens, as a response to the turbulent conditions in Europe.  The first version of her hymn made no mention of children, only faithful Christians throughout history.  The stanzas we see in print today are not all the stanzas Sindell-Berg wrote. One of the omitted stanzas seems to suggest the political unrest of the time:

Praise the Lord in joyful numbers:
Your Protector never slumbers.
At the will of your Defender
Every foeman must surrender.

It was the translator that changed the text to include children, and it has been a song for and about children ever since.

We don’t know who composed the tune TRYGGARE KAN INGEN VARA.  It is sometimes said to be a Swedish folk song, but is also known to have been sung as a German folk song.  It is sometimes attributed to Oskar Ahnfelt, a Swedish musician and hymn writer.  Other times (and probably most likely), Ahnfelt is credited with simply setting the hymn to the folk song.

Here’s what matters:  A simple tune, a lovely poem and poetically graceful translation have come together to give us a song of calm assurance, protection and rest.

The hymn is a particular favorite in the many communities of the American mid-west founded by Swedes and Scandinavians.   Garrison Keillor talked about it in “Singing with the Lutherans:”

 “I once sang the bass line of ‘Children of the Heavenly Father’ in a room with about 3,000 Lutherans in it, and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

The first four stanzas are the ones usually included in hymnals today.

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.

God His own doth tend and nourish;
In His holy courts they flourish;
From all evil things He spares them;
In His mighty arms He bears them.

Neither life nor death shall ever
From the Lord His children sever;
Unto them His grace He showeth,
And their sorrows all He knoweth.

Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy.