Join the Ranks!


Combining my interest in history with performing on a magnificent organ seemed like a great idea, so when Mike Hobbs, from the Civil War Round Table, asked me to provide a program for them I quickly agreed.  I had absolutely no idea, however, how this event would grow…and grow…and grow over the next days and weeks.  What started out as a simple program for a local group has become a much larger event with TV, radio, print and social media coverage.

Click here to watch a KWQC TV Channel 6 segment from “Fran Riley Features…” about the concert.  After watching the video, scroll to find a gallery of photos they took while on location.

During the taping of that segment, John was in the church balcony and took a few photos of his own, shown below.  (Thanks to my daughter Lisa for the great title to the program!)

Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word:  Fran Riley and Channel 6 KWQC, the Galesburg Register-Mail (click here to see the article),  WGIL and Terry Cavanaugh, and all my friends and family (love those Facebook shares!).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Light of the World Is Jesus

Philip P. Bliss (1838-1876) was one of the five children born to John and Lydia Bliss.  Their log home, typical of the early settlers of northern Pennsylvania, was filled with love and Christian teaching, but formal education was scarce.  Early in life, Philip developed a passion for learning and for music, and took advantage of whatever opportunities came his way.  He became a teacher at age 18 and about that same time began his first formal music studies.  His musical gifts, including a strong baritone voice, developed quickly and by 1860 he was teaching music.

In 1864,  Root & Cady, of Chicago, Illinois, published a song by Bliss. The payment he requested and received for the song was a flute.  Bliss soon became friends with George F. Root, composer of many Civil War songs, including “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” and several hymns.   During the next years, Bliss worked for the publisher and with Root, leading singing conventions, teaching and giving concerts.

In 1869, a meeting took place which would change gospel music forever.  Bliss described it as follows: “One Sunday evening, my wife and I went out for a walk, before going to church… we came upon the open air meeting. I was at once attracted by the earnestness of the speaker, who, I was told, was [Dwight L.] Moody, and, waiting until he closed with an earnest appeal for all to follow him to the theater, we decided we would go, and fell in with the crowd, and spent the evening in his meeting there. That night Mr. Moody was without his usual leader for the singing, and the music was rather weak. From the audience, I helped what I could on the hymns, and attracted Moody’s attention. At the close of the meeting, he was at the door shaking hands with all who passed out, and as I came to him he had my name and history in about two minutes, and a promise that when I was in Chicago, Sunday evenings, I would come and help in the singing at the theater meetings. This was the commencement of our acquaintance.”

In July, 1870, Mr. Bliss became leader of the choir of the First Congregational Church of Chicago, and shortly afterwards, the Superintendent of the Sabbath school. He continued to hold both of these positions for about three years, resigning only when his work as a singing evangelist took more of his attention.  In November of 1876, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss went to Peoria, Illinois, for a series of meetings and services with long-time friends and colleagues.  By mid-December, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss returned home to New England to spend Christmas with their sons, Philip playing the part of Santa Claus.  Plans were to return to Chicago for services with Moody, then on to England.  Bliss never made it back to Chicago.  On December 29, 1876, with the children safely at home, Mr. and Mrs. Bliss were in a train accident that took their earthly lives.

Bliss wrote many of the songs that Dwight Moody and Ira Sankey used during the great 1870s revival in England.  “The Light of the World is Jesus” w as written for such a revival meeting and was first sung by Sankey.  Bliss biographer Major D. W. Whittle said, “It came to him together, words and music, one morning while passing through the hall to his room, and was at once written out.”  The text is based on John 8:12.

Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.  John 8:12 KJV

The Light of the World Is Jesus

The whole world was lost
In the darkness of sin,
The Light of the world is Jesus!
Like sunshine at noonday,
His glory shone in.
The Light of the world is Jesus!

Come to the light, ’tis shining for thee;
Sweetly the light has dawned upon me.
Once I was blind, but now I can see:
The Light of the world is Jesus!

No darkness have we
Who in Jesus abide;
The Light of the world is Jesus!
We walk in the light
When we follow our Guide!
The Light of the world is Jesus!


Ye dwellers in darkness
With sin blinded eyes,
The Light of the world is Jesus!
Go, wash, at His bidding,
And light will arise.
The Light of the world is Jesus!


No need of the sunlight
In Heaven we’re told;
The Light of the world is Jesus!
The Lamb is the Light
In the city of gold,
The Light of the world is Jesus!


Great Is Thy Faithfulness

In 1923, Thomas O. Chisholm wrote a poem about God’s faithfulness to us,  based on the scripture found in Lamentations 3:22-23.

It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

Unlike many hymns that are inspired by a specific event,  Chisholm didn’t need a crisis to fully realize God’s faithfulness because he recognized it throughout his life.

Chisholm sent the hymn to a musician friend, William Runyan, to have it to music.  Runyan said, “This particular poem held such an appeal that I prayed most earnestly that my tune might carry its message in a worthy way, and the subsequent history of its use indicates that God answered prayer.”

Let us begin every morning in the joy and assurance of God’s faithfulness and love.

Called As Partners in Christ’s Service

There are things in my life that remind me of the people in my life.  It could be a recipe, a style of shoes, a particular color, most anything really.  Often, it is a song. In some of the churches I have served, the pastor selects the hymns to be sung by the congregation.  Pastors, just like everyone else, have favorite songs.  A few years ago, I had the honor of serving with a pastor named Joe.  He selected this song a lot, and now every time I play it, I am reminded of our service together. Joe and the the text of the song have the same message:  we, as children of God, are to work together to be the love that God is.  Joe chose well.

Jane Parker Huber (1926-2008), daughter of Presbyterian missionaries living in China, wrote the text for this hymn.  It, along with other hymns she wrote,  can be found in the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal, the Chalice Hymnal, the Covenant Hymnal and more.

Huber wrote texts to be used with familiar tunes.  For this hymn, the tune BEECHER was used. John Zundel (1815-1882), composed the tune in 1870 to be used with the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”. Although the hymntune is sometimes called ZUNDEL after the composer, Zundel named it BEECHER after his pastor, Henry Ward Beecher. Beecher was the pastor of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and Zundel was the organist.

Henry Ward Beecher was part of an outspoken family well-known for their abolitionist views and advocacy of social reform. A sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  A brother, Edward Beecher, was also a preacher. Dr. Edward Beecher was the first pastor of First Congregational Church in Galesburg, Illinois, a town active in the Underground Railroad.

The First Congregational Church was the first brick church built in Galesburg, and quickly became known simply as “the Brick Church” and much later as “Beecher Chapel.”  When the tall spire that soared over the town was destroyed by a tornado in 1858, Henry Ward Beecher went on a speaking tour throughout Illinois to help raise funds to repair the church pastored by his brother Edward.  Among the members of the church was Mary Ann “Mother” Bickerdyke.  It was the preaching she heard in the Brick Church the led her to leave the comfort of her home in Galesburg and begin serving the wounded soldiers of the Civil War, saving literally thousands of lives.

In 1895, First Congregational and its mother church, known locally as “Old First Church,” recombined to form Central Congregational Church.  As a result of this union, an exceptionally fine Richardsonian Romanesque church was built in 1898.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is, without a doubt, one of the most significant landmarks in Galesburg.  One of the beautiful stained glass windows at Central is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Edward Beecher.

Detail of stained glass window in the South Room, Central Congregational Church, Galesburg, Illinois, memorial to Dr. Edward Beecher

We, indeed, have all been “called as partners in Christ’s service.” Jane Huber, John Zundel, Henry Ward Beecher, Edward Beecher, my friend Pastor Joe and countless others have certainly effectively served as partners in Christ by informing my faith journey.   Now when we sing “Called As Partners in Christ’s Service”  I am reminded that this partnership spans years as well as miles.  I think of Pastor Joe and his love of God, and of the Beecher family and their influence on America and in my hometown, Galesburg.  I pray for the church where I now serve as Director of Music/Organist, Central Congregational Church.

When Morning Gilds the Skies

In Psalm 34:1, David proclaims, ” I will extol the LORD at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.” (NIV)  To praise God morning, noon and night, and by everyone, everywhere, is exactly what the author of When Morning Gilds the Skies had in mind.  The original German text of fourteen stanzas first appeared in print in 1828.  Although we do not know the author of the German text, we have Edward Caswall (1814-1878) to thank for the translation and skillful poetic setting of the words in a way that makes them ideal for a hymn.  In 1854, Caswall published six stanzas, and in 1858 he added eight more.  The text of five (sometimes four) verses that appears in most modern hymnals comes from various sections of Caswall’s translation.

Joseph Barnby (1838-1896) composed the tune LAUDES DOMINI specifically for Caswall’s text.  Tune and text were first published together in 1868.  The tune name, translated as “the praises of the Lord,” reinforces the theme of the text.  An interesting feature of the hymn-tune is the longer note values added to emphasize the concluding phrase, “May Jesus Christ be praised!

1 When morning gilds the sky,
our hearts awaking cry:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
in all our work and prayer
we ask his loving care:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

2 To God, the Word on high,
the hosts of angels cry:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let mortals too up raise
their voices in hymns of praise:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

3 Let earth’s wide circle round
in joyful notes resound:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Let air and sea and sky
from depth to height reply:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

4 Be this, when day is past,
of all our thoughts the last:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
The night becomes as day
when from the heart we say:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

5 Then let us join to sing
to Christ, our loving King:
May Jesus Christ be praised!
Be this the eternal song
through all the ages long:
May Jesus Christ be praised!

Agnus Dei (Georges Bizet)

Talk of recycling or repurposing often includes tires, newspapers, pallets, books (shudder!), cooking oil and plastic bottles.  What does that have to do with music?  Of all man-made things, music is surely towards the top of the list of things that have been recycled.  A few notes, a phrase, a theme or entire song may show up again and again, sometimes with but more often without acknowledgment of the source.  This recycling did not begin with the internet.  It has likely been around as long as there has been music.

In 1872, French composer Georges Bizet wrote music for a play called “L’Arlesienne.”  The songs served the general purpose as a film score does today, and were written for chorus and small orchestra. Some of the tunes were original, but some were recycled from folk music.   Neither the music score nor the play were well-received.  Bizet recycled some of the music into an orchestral suite of four movements, which came to be known as “L’Arlesienne Suite No.1.”  From this suite came the song “March of the Kings,” a theme Bizet himself recycled from history.

After Bizet’s death, Ernest Guiraud arranged and published “L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2,” recycling more of Bizet’s themes, some but not all from “L’Arlesienne.”  The recycling continued when sometime later, Guiraud took the second movement (Intermezzo), added the sacred Latin text of Agnus Dei to it, and published the song independent of the suite.

The following video features a 1913 audio recording of Enrico Caruso.  While I prefer the full orchestral version to the piano and sparse instrumentation used in this recording, having the piano score as part of the video as well as Caruso’s historic interpretation is wonderful.

People, Look East

As a church musician, I’ve heard the complaint that the songs of Advent don’t seem as joyful as Christmas songs.  I’ll agree that some of them can feel a little heavy.  After all, Advent is a time of reflection and preparation, and reflections and preparations don’t always come easily or lightly.  Then along comes People, Look East, with its lively rhythm and words that bounce with joy and eager anticipation.

The author of the text, Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965) is best known for her children’s stories.  In addition to this hymn, she also penned Morning Has Broken, often associated with the recording by Cat Stevens.  The music came later, written by Christopher Steel.

The instruction to “look east” is reminiscent of the Magi’s visit to see the Christ Child.  They made their journey when they looked east and saw the star.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,   saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.” -Matthew 2:1-2 (NKJV)

When we talk about facing east, we are usually talking about east on the compass, the direction of the rising sun, symbolic of the coming of Christ.  For centuries, church have been constructed with the altar in the eastern part of the building.  When churches were built in locations that did not permit that orientation, the end of the building containing the altar is referred to as liturgical east, or the “east end” regardless of the actual direction.  Whether literally or symbolically, when the Church faces east to pray, it does so in anticipation of the coming of the Lord.

The first verse of the hymn puts it this way:

“People, look east. The time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.”

In Revelation 3:20 we read, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Jesus does not force His way in.  He waits for your invitation.  In this Advent season I pray you open the door of your heart to His divine love.

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.