Who Are Those Old Hymn Writers? Fanny Crosby


Years ago I read a biography about Fanny Crosby an American lyricist, but I remembered really only two things: she was blind, and there was some controversy over her choruses.

Doing a little research about her, I learned a lot more. First, born a hundred years after Isaac Watts, in 1820, she was far more prolific than he. Her songs and hymns numbered nearly 9000! Because the hymnbook publishers didn’t want a book filled by only one writer, they had her write under a number of pseudonyms besides writing under her own name.

Second, Fanny Crosby was married, even had a daughter who died in infancy (either from typhoid or SIDS). She and her husband eventually lived apart, and he died in 1902. She lived until 1915, when she was a few months shy of 95.

In her early career, she taught at the New York Institute of the Blind (which is where she met her husband—he was also blind). Later she spoke in many places, published her autobiography, collaborated on a number of hymnals, and spent much of her life as a rescue mission worker.

Crosby has become known as the Queen of Gospel Song Writers and reached a level of popularity in her lifetime that sets her apart from other lyricists. Her songs were largely simple, not lofty or grandiose. She intended them to be evangelistic in nature. “Many times literary critics would challenge the quality of her work, to which she would remind them that she was writing to be understood by the common people, not the elite.” (Paperless Hymnal)

She did not let her blindness be a hindrance. After her father died and while her mother was caring for his children from another marriage and Fanny, her grandmother took over a great deal of responsibility teaching her about the world and about the Bible. Fanny began to memorize Scripture, and eventually learned “the first five books of the Old Testament, then the first four of the New Testament, then Proverbs and many of the psalms.” (Ibid)

As it happened, her blindness was a result of a doctor’s malpractice. When she was two months old, this man treated the infant for an illness by applying a mustard poultice to her eyes. She was never bitter or angry toward this man. She is reported to have said when she was 85 that if she could have asked for something at birth it would be that she would be blind so that the first face she would see would be her Lord and Savior.

Regarding the controversy. Largely the issues revolved around her meager pay for the songs and an appeal that went public for help with her financial needs. She did not believe herself in need at all. In fact her publisher provided a stipend for her long after she was no more giving them new lyrics.

What I had recalled was some question about the depth of what she wrote, much the same as Isaac Watts faced, but if that was the case, that fact did not surface in my research today. Instead, it appears her poems and lyrics were popular, particularly when D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey included them in their crusades.

Of course, beyond her influence in her own day, Fanny Crosby’s legacy continues. Many of her hymns are well loved and are still sung wherever hymns are still sung. A list of her most well-known songs include:

“All the Way My Savior Leads Me”–1875, music by Robert Lowry
“Blessed Assurance”–1873, music by Phoebe Knapp
“He Hideth My Soul”–1890, music by William J. Kirkpatrick
“I Am Thine, O Lord (Draw Me Nearer)”–1875, music by W. Howard Doane
“Tell Me the Story of Jesus”–1880, music by John R. Sweney
“To God Be the Glory”–1875, music by W. Howard Doane

And so many others.

Here’s an all time favorite.

And here’s another.

Published in: on November 8, 2019 at 5:58 pm  Comments (4)  
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Who Are Those Old Hymn Writers? Isaac Watts


I may have mentioned that I’ve been spending time with my parents’ old hymnal. I even bought a hymnal on line because I wanted more of the spiritual songs I have sung for most of my life. One thing I like about the hymn books is that you have time to see who wrote them—lyrics and music alike.

One name kept popping up in connection to hymns I knew well, that I’d sung in every church I attended: Issac Watts. A famous name, but who was he? I realized I didn’t actually know. So a little research and here’s what I learned.

An Englishman, Watts lived a long time ago, born and died before the birth of the United States. But he was a product of the Reformation. The Anglican church dominated the scene at the time, but the Watts family affiliated with the Nonconformists. His father even spent time in jail because his beliefs were illegal.

Watts had an aptitude for language and for poetry. He has come to be known as the father of English hymnody. The Germans had been writing hymns for a hundred years already, but Watts introduced something new in English. Many of his 600 some hymns were paraphrases of Scripture.

Still, his songs were controversial in some places, in large part because they were not Scripture.

A hymn in the most general sense is a song of praise to God, but it is distinguished from a psalm, a lyrical expression of devotion drawn from the Book of Psalms in the Bible. Psalm singing, or psalmody, was the main form of congregational musical involvement in services when Watts came on the scene. Watts’s hymns were often based on psalms, but he put them into a moving new language of personal worship that anyone could understand. (“Isaac Watts,” Encyclopedia.com)

Quoting from a primary source, CT Magazine explains further:

“Christian congregations have shut out divinely inspired psalms and taken in Watts’s flights of fancy,” protested one detractor. Others dubbed the new songs “Watts’s whims.” (“Isaac Watts: Father of English Hymnody”)

I guess music has been an issue for a long time in the Church!

Watts never married. He lived and worked in London as a tutor for a number of years, then as a pastor, and finally primarily as a hymn writer.

He was know in his day for his work and teaching in the subject of logic. He wrote the textbook that was used for years known as Logic but fully entitled he Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. Some of this work departed from the standard understanding of the discipline and some was innovative as he utilized the influence of contemporary thought, including that of John Locke.

Isaac Watts was a small, frail man, but brilliant and influential in his own day. What amazes me is how long his influence has lasted. Here are some of his best known hymns:

Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed? (music: Hugh Wilson)
Am I a Soldier of the Cross? (music: Thomas A. Arne)
At the Cross (music: Ralph E. Hudson)
Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove (music: John B. Dykes)
Come, We That Love the Lord (music: Aaron Williams)
I Sing the Mighty Power of God (from Gesangbuch der Herzogl, 1784)
Jesus Shall Reign (music: John Hatton)
Joy to the World! (music: George F. Handel)
O God, Our Help in Ages Past (music: attr. to William Croft)
We’re Marching to Zion (music: Robert Lowry)
When I Can Read My Title Clear (music: attr. to Joseph C. Lowry)
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (music: arr. by Lowell Mason) [List compiled by Wholesome Words]

So who was Isaac Watts? A brilliant man, a pastor who loved God and His word and wanted to make the truth of Scripture accessible to the normal person. Even to children. He had a book of hymns written just for them.

And amazingly, his influence continues today. Especially at Christmas when people of all kinds of religious backgrounds may hear strains of “Joy to the World,” not a holiday song really. It is a “for all times” hymn, as are so many others of his.

Published in: on November 7, 2019 at 5:52 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Majesty Of Music



Photo by Maggie Hazen from FreeImages

There are a few things that transport me to another level of worship. One is nature. Not just any nature, either. The ocean, with waves crashing against cliffs is pretty good, but better is the high country—beyond timberline. I’ve only been there a few times, but it’s like a different world.

Coming out of the darkness created by evergreens growing in tight clusters, you discover fields of wildflowers, glacier patches, blue-green lakes, and a sky that’s such a rich blue it looks like you could eat it. Oh, and rocky peaks that look more like cathedrals. And crystal cold streams. All I can think is, This is the world God created.

Music has that same effect on me. Not all music. Just like nature, there are pieces and then there are pieces. Some I enjoy because they are fun or they fit my mood or they are performed well. Others feel as if a piece of my soul is drifting on the sound waves. And still others feel as if my soul is reaching up to God.

Some years ago my church hosted a nearby university (California Baptist) choir and orchestra in concert. They were spectacular, and I had one of those majesty of music moments. What’s more, I bought one of their CD’s, Glory, and have played it frequently. The songs would run through my head when I woke up, and I could hardly wait to play them again.

In fact, I posted one of the songs some time ago with Sandi Patty performing it. The song is spectacular and Sandi Patty is … well, Sandi Patty.

But here’s the choir I listened to—not the music I have, but it kind of brings nature and music together, I think. I hope you enjoy.

This article first appeared here in April 2012 and was reprinted in November 2015.

For a little bonus, here’s one of my favorite classic music pieces, Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto in D major (especially from the 8:30 mark, then right after Perlman’s solo, around the 13:30 mark).

But what I’m really enjoying right now is a collection of pieces put together on YouTube as an autumn selection. (This one is long!)

Published in: on November 6, 2019 at 5:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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For What Do We Praise God?



Photo by Steve Johnson from Pexels

I’ve said from time to time that I think contemporary churches lose something if they don’t continue to sing hymns of old. I appreciate the fact that a number of songwriters have added to the selection of music which we can use in church. But there’s something about the old hymns that the new ones don’t seem to have.

This may be nothing more than my perspective, based on the songs in my church. We no longer have hymnals (I just bought one on Amazon because I miss them so much—part of the birthday present from my brother!) Instead we sing songs that are projected on screens. Not the music. Just the words.

That fact along is a clue to me that these songs are a little “light weight.” I mean, anyone can pick up the tune with little effort. What’s more, we sing in a sort of unisex way, in a key that is too low for me as a soprano. It’s sort of keyed as if we’re all altos. But that’s not really the point.

What bothers me is the simplicity of the lyrics. They are without meat.

There certainly are exceptions, most notably “Christ Alone” by the Gettys. But instead of singing any number of their others, we seem to take our choices from a very limited selection that has a number of songs that repeat and repeat and repeat. I have to wonder. There have been so many jokes about the repetition in contemporary praise music, you’d think writers and worship leaders would have figured out there’s a better way. But apparently not.

We do sing a smattering of hymns too, but those are ones that have a contemporary arrangement. So the selection is very, very small.

I found a hymn this morning that I’d like to learn, but I don’t read music, so I was hoping I could find it online. It’s old, and even the translation from the original language is old. But I think it says some incredible things about God. Sadly, I didn’t find it. I have a friend who plays the piano so maybe . . . but I don’t know how to get it home where I can actually learn it. But never mind. The real issue is the lyrics. Here they are:

Stanza 1
Lord, who can be with you compared?
Or who Thy greatness hath declared?
What ardent thought discerned aright?

Chorus #1
Further than our poor reck’ning stretches
Beyond the ken of mortal eye,
Or boundless depths of starry reaches,
There has Thou set They throne on high.

Stanza 2
Praise, honor, majesty receiving,
Thou Source and Life of all the living,
Thy dazzling vestment is the light!

Chorus #1

Stanza 3
Exalt, my soul, exalt the glory
Of my Creator, tell the story
That all the earth may understand!

Chorus #2
Rejoice in Him, ye hosts of heaven,
To Him alone your voices raise;
Worthy is He to whom be given
Honor and worship, thanks and praise

Stanza 4
Sing thy triumphant songs before Him,
Repeat them, all His saints adore Him
Who holds us by His mighty hand.

Chorus #2

The original is some 250 years old and even the translation is over a hundred years old. But I love the connection between those believers long ago who sang to the same God and Father I know. I love the connection with the Church universal, down through the ages, understanding who God is and how He interacts with us.

I also like that these lyrics make me think. They aren’t cookie cutter. They don’t repeat one phrase—even a good phrase—over and over so that it’s easy to sing without thinking about what your singing (not that I would ever do that! 😉 )

I also like, and this may be the most important thing, that the focus is primarily on God, not how I feel about God.

My internet search for the lyrics of this hymn uncovered another song with the word “compare” in the title. Here’s the first verse:

Where would I be
If it wasn’t for Your kindness toward me
You’ve been closer than a friend could ever be
There is nothing on the Earth that could take Your place

These are good things to sing about God, but it seems to me there’s a shift so that the spotlight is as much on my relationship with God as it is on God. I do think a believer’s relationship with God should be celebrated, so I’m definitely not knocking this song.

But I think we lose something if our focus most of the time is about how we feel about God rather than about God Himself. It’s almost as if we have to understand God in terms of how He affects us instead of Who He is apart from us.

There’s one song we sing in my church that highlights God’s goodness. One line says “He’s so good to me.” I always want to shout right there, NO, He’s good whether I perceive Him as good or not, whether I benefit immediately from His goodness or not. Because the truth is, I don’t always see God’s goodness. I believe in His goodness because He’s revealed His end game, so I know not to make an evaluation of Him based on me and my life right now.

I mean, there’s a woman in front of me who lost her husband to cancer. How does she perceive a line like, He’s so good to me?

But the lines of the old humn? Those tell the truth about God, and I love to be reminded—I need to be reminded—who He is in a deeper way than so many of contemporary songs say.

Published in: on October 23, 2019 at 5:41 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Majesty Of Music


There are a few things that transport me to another level of worship. One is nature. Not just any nature, either. The ocean, with waves crashing against cliffs is pretty good, but better is the high country—beyond timberline. I’ve only been there a few times, but it’s like a different world.

Coming out of the darkness created by evergreens growing in tight clusters, you discover fields of wildflowers, glacier patches, blue-green lakes, and a sky that’s such a rich blue it looks like you could eat it. Oh, and rocky peaks that look more like cathedrals. And crystal cold streams. All I can think is, This is the world God created.

Music has that same effect on me. Not all music. Just like nature, there are pieces and then there are pieces. Some I enjoy because they are fun or they fit my mood or they are performed well. Others feel as if a piece of my soul is drifting on the sound waves. And still others feel as if my soul is reaching up to God.

Some years ago my church hosted a nearby university (California Baptist) choir and orchestra in concert. They were spectacular, and I had one of those majesty of music moments. What’s more, I bought one of their CD’s, Glory, and have played it frequently. The songs run through my head when I wake up, and I can hardly wait to put on the CD again.

In fact, I posted one of the songs some time ago with Sandi Patty performing it. The song is spectacular and Sandi Patty is … well, Sandi Patty.

But here’s the choir I listened to—an older version of it, but fittingly, they are singing Majesty. I hope you enjoy.

This article first appeared here in April 2012

Published in: on November 23, 2015 at 5:42 pm  Comments Off on The Majesty Of Music  
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A Musical Interlude


Song writers and musicians Keith and Kristyn Getty

Song writers and musicians Keith and Kristyn Getty


From time to time I’ve discussed what I perceive to be problems with the music portion of worship in many churches, and of late that includes my own.

Instead of breaking down the problems again or elaborating or pointing out particulars that seem inconsistent with a service intended to glorify God and edify believers, I thought I’d post a video which shows the kind of music I would like to see more of. It’s contemporary and it’s Biblical. It focuses on God and His work. It is musically the kind of song lay people can sing. And it is theologically on target, requiring people to think even as they worship.

Honestly, I think I could have posted any song from the Gettys’ hymn collection and said essentially what I wrote above. Their music is that good. I invite you to see for yourself, and then check out their YouTube channel.

Published in: on September 16, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (16)  
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Church Music, Again


up-front-1463389-639x478I figure if the songs we sing in church can repeat a line three times, and the worship leader can have us sing that stanza three times, then I have the freedom to write about church music again. (A couple previous posts are “Music And The Church” and “Congregational Singing”).

I’ll be honest: I’m concerned. My church has taken a stand against viewing the preaching of the word as a performance which we evaluate like we do a movie we go to see. Which is good. Very good. However, our music is nothing more than concert-like. Is there not a disconnect? If the “worship” time is all about the guys up on the stage, why would the “audience” not view it as the warm-up act for the main event: the preacher?

If we want to put on concerts, I don’t have a problem with that. I do have a problem when we put on a mini-concert on Sunday morning and call it worship.

A couple weeks ago, the worship leader (I have no idea who he was because we never have the same person two weeks in a row), said he was so excited because he felt there was a new freedom in our worship. I thought, How would he know? He can’t see the audience with the spotlights shining in his face and the rest of the room in total darkness, and he can’t hear anyone other than those who are on stage with him. So how is he to judge whether or not there is a “new freedom”?

Some weeks before that, I talked to the worship leader (a different guy) after our service to ask about the particular choice of songs. The words of one seemed particularly unbiblical—more in tune with the health and wealth message than the gospel. As I recall there was some line in one that said something about victory in the streets. Well, I looked around to see if I could find it, and I didn’t have the lyric right. The song is called “Build Your Kingdom Here.”

As it happens, I found it on a site that rates Christian worship songs, and they gave this particular song zero stars. Zero. According to their rating scale, “A rating of zero stars means this song is not recommended for ANY use in a Biblical church.”

Here’s the explanation of the rating for this particular song:

This is a good example of how an otherwise good topic can be misapplied and misunderstood by those singing this type of song. God is in the process of establishing His Kingdom now in the reborn spirits of men who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. He will not establish His physical Kingdom on earth till Christ returns. He will not “heal our streets and lands” until the Millennial Kingdom. Right now we are to preach the Gospel whereby the Holy Spirit changes people who commit to Jesus Christ from the inside out. Two other phrases in this song show it is from a Dominionist/Latter Rain perspective. “Change our atmosphere” and “Holy Spirit, come invade us now”. The “atmosphere” of the world will not be changed until the Millennial Kingdom because right now it is under the dominion of the evil one. The Holy Spirit does not “invade” people, and if they are being forcibly “invaded” it is another spirit.

I don’t endorse everything the people at this site believe, but some of their evaluations were not only ones I agreed with but dovetailed with others who have written about worship music. In this song, the “heal our streets and lands” was the line that I balked at, and the invading of the Holy Spirit is wrong on so many levels—first and foremost, as I see it, that the Holy Spirit already lives inside each Christian.

But the thing that grieves me is the fact that two songs up from this one on the Worship Song Ratings list is one we “sang” (had sung to us) last Sunday: “Break Every Chain.” This one earned one star. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

[Lead:]
There is power in the name of Jesus [3x]
to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain. [2x]

[Chorus:]
There is power in the name of Jesus [3x]
to break every chain, break every chain, break every chain. [2x]

Songs like this that say so little really bother me. Why are we filling our worship time with such vapid fare?

We are to pray in the name of Jesus because He stands in our stead before God. He is our mediator. But the chains of sin and guilt and the law and death were broken at the cross. He isn’t breaking chains now. But of course, I’m only reading into the “chains” what I expect them to mean. I have no idea what the song writer meant or what the worship leader means or what the other people standing in the dark are thinking.

It’s simply vapid—devoid of any real substance, any real meaning. A synonym is vacuous—“having or showing a lack of thought or intelligence; mindless.”

And this is the type of song that at least one worship leader says is part of a “new freedom to worship.”

I’m sorry, but what is happening to the church?

Is our time with God reduced to empty, repetitious inanities?

I fear for the next generation. What are their minds going to dwell on when they’re stricken with cancer or facing the death of a loved one? Have they memorized Scripture that the Holy Spirit can bring to their remembrance? Do they have the words of hymns rich in doctrine to resonate with their soul?

We need revival.

Published in: on August 4, 2015 at 7:00 pm  Comments (36)  
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Hymns


Rose-on-hymnal-on-pianoI suspect fewer and fewer churches sing hymns any more. My church did away with hymnals when we remodeled the sanctuary last year. We now have one service with “classic worship,” but the music of late seems to be one hymn to every three contemporary praise songs.

What stands out to me when the songs are put side by side is the quality of the hymns and, well, the weaker craftsmanship of the contemporary songs. Often times the latter doesn’t have a very complex vocal arrangement. I’m not a musician, but I don’t think you have to be one to hear the difference when they’re played one after the other.

But of late, it’s the lyrics I’ve been noticing. The last two Sundays I’ve been thinking, I grew up singing the kinds of hymns like “To God Be The Glory,” and it’s no wonder I have a strong sense of who God is and what He’s done.

At least for me, music gets inside me and makes the lyrics live. If contemporary music focuses more on the worshiper (“I give You my heart/I give You my soul/Lord, have Your way with me”) rather than on the object of our worship (“To God be the glory, great things He has done”), then it seems we’ll have fewer and fewer doctrines of the faith reinforced through our music.

I understand hymns are hard. There are too many thee‘s and thou‘s and hath‘s and would’st. But it dawned on me a number of weeks ago, those hymns were hard for me when I was growing up, too. I didn’t understand phrases like “schisms rent asunder” or “Mid toil and tribulation, / and tumult of her war, / she waits the consummation / of peace forevermore,” at least not in those early years when I first sang those lines.

But like learning another language or learning to read poetry, the meaning of those hymns became clear one by one. When I was younger I loved “Trust and Obey.” Now I’m pretty sure I thought of that song as my favorite, not because I was so trusting or obedient or even because I valued those qualities greatly, but because I understood what the words were saying. “Trust and obey for there’s no other way / to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”

I’m tempted to say “Trust and Obey” has a lot in common with contemporary music because it does seem to put the focus on the worshiper, but there’s still doctrine woven into the fabric of each line. The point here is, “Trust and Obey” is an example of my “entry” hymns. I understood it and came to love it and that led me to other hymns I understood and loved.

Ultimately, singing hymns was no longer a chore but a rich pleasure. I miss four part harmony, I miss the great truths of the faith put to music. And I’m concerned for the next generation, growing up with parents who have been raised without hymns and with a postmodern outlook on life which has given them a relativistic perspective and a lack of an authoritative anchor.

Of course there are a handful of musicians who saw this situation before I did and who are doing something about it. They’re writing modern hymns. The ones I know are Keith and Kristyn Getty who have written songs like “All Around The World”:

All around the world the Kingdom cry resounds
From mountain town to desert plain,
From city to the shore.
Truth will not be bound by walls upon the earth.
From every nation, tribe and tongue
God calls His people forth

Now if we could just sing those hymns more often.

Published in: on May 26, 2014 at 6:48 pm  Comments (14)  
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