Presented on September 27, 2020, Wesley’s Heart Song Sunday was composed of hymns suggested by members of the congregation. They were recorded by members of our Chancel Choir and we welcome everyone to sing along.
You can find all of our recordings with the descriptions of how the hymns came to be written below or by visiting our YouTube page.
“How Great Thou Art” is a Christian hymn based on a Swedish poem written by Carl Gustav Boberg (1859-1940) in Sweden in 1885. The inspiration for the poem came when Boberg was walking home from church near Kronoback, Sweden, and listening to church bells. A sudden awe-inspiring storm gripped Boberg’s attention, and then just as suddenly as it had made its violent entrance.
This incredible story of faith belongs to Horatio Spafford (1828-1888). Much like Job, he placed his trust in God during his life’s prosperity, but also during its calamities. A devout Christian who’d immersed himself in Scripture, many years of his life were joyous. He was a prominent Chicago lawyer, whose business was thriving. He owned several properties throughout the city. He and his beloved wife had four beautiful daughters and one son. Life was more than good — it was blessed.
But faith, no matter how great, does not spare us from adversity. Just as Horatio hit the pinnacle of his profession and financial success, things began to change. It began with the tragic loss of their son. Not long thereafter, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed nearly every real estate investment Horatio owned.
Just a few years later in 1873, Horatio decided to treat his wife and daughters to a much-needed escape from the turmoil. He sent them on a boat trip to Europe, with plans to join them shortly after wrapping up some business in Chicago. Just a few days later, he received a dreadful telegram from his wife, “Saved alone…” It bore the excruciating news that family’s ship had wrecked and all four of his daughters had perished.
Horatio was on his way to meet his heartbroken wife, passing over the same sea that had just claimed the lives of his remaining children. It was then that he put his pen to paper and the timeless hymn was born.
Civilla Martin was born in Nova Scotia in 1866. Her husband was an evangelist who traveled all over the United States. She accompanied him and they worked together on most of the musical arrangements that were sung.
In 1904 Civilla was visiting an ill, bedridden friend. Although discouraged and sick, her friend remembered that God, her Heavenly Father, was watching over each little sparrow and would certainly watch after her. Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Austin Miles was a writer of gospel songs. In 1912 he was asked by music publisher Dr. Adam Geibel to write lyrics that would be “sympathetic in tone, breathing tenderness in every line; one that would bring hope to the hopeless, rest for the weary, and downy pillows to the dying beds”. Miles wrote the text as it came to him in a vision and made no revisions to the original draft. He composed the music later that same night.
The night he wrote “In the Garden”, Miles said he sat alone and turned to his favorite chapter in the Bible, John 20. This chapter described when Mary Madeline first saw Jesus after the crucifixion. In his vision, Miles said he found himself at the entrance of a garden containing a path lined with olive trees. A woman shrouded in white, who Miles believes was Mary, approached the tomb, sobbed and quickly left. When Mary returned, she recognized and greeted Jesus by crying “Rabboni!!”. Miles woke from his vision and found that he was gripping his Bible tightly. He wrote the words to the hymn “under the inspiration of this vision”.
In writing the lyrics to “Lord of the Dance” in 1963, Sydney Carter was inspired partly by Jesus, but also partly by a statue of the Hindu God Shiva as Nataraja (Shiva’s dancing pose) which sat on his desk, and was partly intending simply to give tribute to Shaker music. He later stated, “I did not think the churches would like it at all. I thought many people would find it pretty far flown, probably heretical and anyway dubiously Christian. But in fact people did sing it and, unknown to me, it touched a chord … Anyway, it’s the sort of Christianity I believe in.”
The author, George Bennard, served with the Salvation Army before being ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. After this song’s debut in Michigan, it was presented at an evangelistic convention in Chicago and participants took it back to their homes throughout the country.
At 22, Ray Palmer was having a tough year. He wanted to go into the ministry but was stuck teaching at a girls’ school in New York City. He was lonely, depressed, and sick. Then he found a German poem about a sinner kneeling before the cross. He translated it and added four stanzas. “I wrote the verses with tender emotion, “ he said later. “There was not the slightest thought of writing for another eye, least of all writing a hymn for Christian worship.”
As the young minister traveled through the rugged country near England’s Cheddar Gorge, the clouds burst and torrential sheets of rain pummeled the earth. The weary traveler was able to find shelter standing under a rocky overhang. There, protected from the buffeting wind and rain, Augustus Toplady conceived one of the most popular hymns ever written, “Rock of Ages, Cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee.”
“Victory in Jesus” was the final song E. M. Bartlett wrote. The hymn also became his best known and most embraced song. The song is an optimistic reminder of the hope of heaven. In the second stanza, there are references to the healing ministry of Christ.
“Victory in Jesus” was written in 1939, two years before Bartlett’s death. The song first appeared that year in “Gospel Choruses,” a paperback songbook published by James Vaughan in Lawrenceburg, Tenn. Since the early 1960s, “Victory in Jesus” has become popular among evangelical congregations, and recent hymnals published for these churches have included it.
Dan Schutte, the hymn’s author, never assumed the tune would become so well-known.
Mr. Schutte was a Jesuit in his early thirties learning theology in Berkeley, California when one of his friends requested him to compose a song for a forthcoming ordaining Mass of deacons.
Schutte has stated that he frequently used Scripture as the foundation of his songs, so as he thought about the concept of being called for the ordaining Mass, he looked to the stories of the prophets, like Jeremiah, who asked God to bestow him with the best words to use.
Schutte describes his inspiration of the chorus as, “In all those stories, all of those people God was calling to be prophets have expressed in one way or another their humanness or their self-doubt.” This biblical sense of doubt joined with counsel from the other St. Louis Jesuits was the reason Mr. Schutte altered the lyrics from a certain “Here I am, Lord; here I stand, Lord” to the self-doubting ultimate version: “Here I am, Lord; is it I, Lord?”
This hymn was written by an anonymous writer of Irish descent in the 8th century. It is filled with various titles for God. The word “vision” is used to indicate not only what we focus on but also what we strive for. As we strive for a goal, we gain a long-range perspective that helps us see today’s disappointments as trivial when compared to the heavenly vision.
From time to time, a choral anthem inspires a hymn. “Hymn of Promise” was first conceived as an anthem in 1985, performed at the Pasadena Community Church, St. Petersburg, Florida, during a festival concert on Natalie Sleeth’s music. Long known as a composer of anthems, especially for children, Natalie Sleeth (1930-1992) contributed one of the favorite new hymns to The United Methodist Hymnal.
Sleeth was as native of Evanston, Illinois. She began piano study at the age of four and gained much of her musical experience by singing in choral ensembles during her earlier years. Studying music theory, piano, and organ at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she received her B.A. in 1952. Married to Ronald E. Sleeth, a United Methodist clergyman and professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
Sleeth had the ability to compose both texts and music. Though “Hymn of Promise” has become a favorite hymn for funerals, it was written at a time when the author states that she was “pondering the ideas of life, death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter, and the whole reawakening of the world that happens every spring.” Inspired by a T.S. Eliot line, the germ of the hymn grew from the idea “in our end is our beginning” the phase that begins the third stanza of the hymn.
While it carries the promise of spring and the hope of Easter in its beautiful metaphors, it is a very appropriate hymn for funeral and memorial services. Shortly after its composition, the composer’s husband was diagnosed with what turned out to be a terminal malignancy. Ronald Sleeth requested that “Hymn of Promise” be sung at his funeral service.
A wonderful child-like simplicity permeates “Hymn of Promise”. Natalie Sleeth had a gift for composing texts on complex theological ideas that were still accessible to children. Her melodies seemed totally natural and therefore effortless for people to learn. “Hymn of Promise” is one of the most memorable hymns written by an American United Methodist in the last part of the twentieth century, and it promises to be sung for many years to come.
John Fawcett (1739-1817), a dissenting Baptist clergyman in England, gave us one of the most beloved farewell hymns of all time. Fawcett’s parish in Wainsgate, described by hymnologist Albert Bailey as “a straggling group of houses on the top of a barren hill,” may have been typical for many rural pastors in the 18th century.
Fawcett, orphaned at 12, was “bound out” to a tailor in Bradford where he worked long hours. He learned to read and eventually mastered Pilgrim’s Progress, the devotional classic by John Bunyan.
Fawcett was converted under the powerful preaching of George Whitefield while the evangelist delivered a message to 20,000 people in an open field. It is said that upon telling Whitefield he wanted to preach, the evangelist gave Fawcett his blessing.
Mr. Bailey describes Fawcett’s congregation at Wainsgate: “The people were all farmers and shepherds, poor as Job’s turkey; an uncouth lot whose speech one could hardly understand, unable to read or write; most of them pagans cursed with vice and ignorance and wild tempers. The Established Church had never touched them; only the humble Baptists had sent an itinerant preacher there and he had made a good beginning.”
John and Mary Fawcett went to live there in 1765 following his ordination. By engaging families house-to-house, he built a congregation that grew to the point that a gallery had to be added to the modest meetinghouse. With the addition of four children to the family, a modest salary that was supplemented by parishioners’ donations of wool and potatoes was barely adequate, especially during the long winters.
The story is told that a prestigious parish with more financial resources in London, Carter’s Lane Baptist Church, extended a call. It is at this point that it becomes difficult to separate fact from apocryphal imagination.
Mr. Bailey, a vivid storyteller, sets the scene: “[John] and Mary decided to accept. The announcement was made to the church, and the farewell sermon was preached, the bulky items of his furniture and some of his older books were sold and the day of departure arrived. The two-wheeled cart came for the rest of his belongings, and likewise came the parishioners to say good-by.”
The crowd was despondent and in tears. According to Mr. Bailey, Mary is quoted as saying, “I can’t stand it, John! I know not how to go.” John responded, “Lord help me Mary, nor can I stand it! We will unload the wagon. . . . [To the crowd], We’ve changed our minds! We are going to stay!” Mr. Bailey describes a scene of pandemonium as the crowd broke out in joyful acclamations.
It was the practice of many ministers to write hymns on the theme of the day to be sung at the conclusion of the sermon. This hymn was included under the title of “Brotherly Love” in Fawcett’s Hymns Adapted to the Circumstances of Public Worship and Private Devotion (1782). UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes that the “collection contained 166 hymns, most of them to be sung as a congregational response to the sermon.”
We do know that John Fawcett remained in Wainsgate for 54 years and nearby Hebden Bridge. We do not know if this hymn was written in conjunction with his decision to remain in Wainsgate, but its language connects well with congregations, identifying with the struggles of life and our unity in Christ.
No doubt this hymn has been tearfully sung by more Christians upon parting than any other hymn. Fawcett developed a school for the area children by adding on to his home. He was known as an educator and scholar, as well as a fine preacher. We sing it today to bless each other as we go and to affirm the bonds between us during this difficult time.