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

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!


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.

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.


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.