Reflection – stories about the hymns
There is much written about the lyrics we sing in church. Most people are aware that John Newton wrote Amazing Grace, moved as he was by the redemption he had received from God. Newton had worked on slave ships for many years, before having a change of heart, and turning his talents to advising William Wilberforce in his campaign to abolish slavery. Near the end of his life, he said, ‘my memory is now dim, but I remember these two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour’.
Perhaps not many know that Charles Wesley wrote Jesu, lover of my soul as he hid in a ditch, after being pursued by an angry mob in County Down. Fewer still may know that a soldier fighting in the American Civil War, poised to shoot another from the opposing side, heard him singing ‘Cover my defenceless head, with the shadow of thy wing’. He lowered his rifle and turned away.
Onward Christian Soldiers, now fallen out of favour (except with, unsurprisingly, the Salvation Army) due to its supposed militaristic leanings, was written for children processing to church in the parish of Horbury Bridge. The clear tune and rousing words have led to some parodies of this hymn. One, expressing the frustration of Church reformers goes: ‘Like a might tortoise, Moves the Church of God, Brothers we are treading, Where we’ve always trod’. Yet this hymn, too had a personal story. Winston Churchill, at a church service in 1941, looked across the packed congregation of fighting men singing the hymn, and later said ‘it swept across me that here was the only hope…of saving the world from measureless degradation.’ (IBID pg201)
Cecil Frances Alexander wrote There is a green hill far away for her godson. He had been complaining about learning the catechism, so she wrote this based on some of the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Aled Jones reflects that it was when singing this hymn at his village primary school, that the headmaster suggested to the enthusiastic singers that they should sing the second verse at half the volume. Says Aled ‘he explained that the feeling inside us would be so different. So [we] sang ‘O dearly, dearly has he loved, And we must love him too’ in a more intimate fashion and realised there were shades to be had in hymn singing…. I will always remember that moment in assembly’. (Forty Favourite Hymns, p137)
When we do get to sing in church again, we can once again join the thousands of folk through hundreds of years, taking in the lyrics as we give voice to beautiful melodies, and because God is the same throughout the ages, know that what uplifted, encouraged and comforted them can do the same for us today. God bless you.