Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Philip Bliss, who wrote both the text and tune for this hymn, and his 19th century contemporary, Ira Sankey, are credited with founding the gospel song movement.  Both were part of the Dwight L. Moody evangelistic team, and both sang, led crusade singing, and authored many gospel songs.  Bliss was inspired to write this hymn after hearing the following illustration in one of Moody’s sermons: The pilot of a ship aught in a violent storm searched frantically for the lights that would guide him to safety.  He could see the powerful beam of the lighthouse, but the lower lights along the rocky shore were out, and both the ship and crew were last. “Brethren,” Moody concluded, “the Master will take care of the lighthouse, but we must keep the lower lights burning.”

The link below will open a new window and features the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with an especially  lovely setting of this song.

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

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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!

Refrain
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!

Refrain

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!

Refrain

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!

Refrain

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.

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!

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!

 

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.

 

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?

Refrain:
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.

Refrain

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

Refrain

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

Refrain

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

Refrain

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.