FRANCES A. MOSHER
Pianist, Christ Congregation
Years I spend in Vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died on Calvary.
By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned to Calvary.
Now I’ve given to Jesus everything;
Now I gladly own Him as my King;
Now my raptured soul can only sing of Calvary
Oh, the love the drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the might gulf that god did span, at Calvary!
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty, at Calvary.
William P. Newell (1868-1956)
The lyrics of “At Calvary” affirm Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The author, William R. Newell, contrasts his attitude toward the Cross of Calvary before his conversion, at the point of his conversion, and since his conversion.1 Prior to his conversion he lived in pride, apparently unaware of, and unconcerned about, his own sinful condition. He may have been one of the multitude of people who vaguely agree with the idea that our Lord somehow died for “sinners,” but who fail to see that they themselves are among those sinners and therefore in need of Christ’s atoning blood.
In the second stanza, Newell testifies that it was through the Word of God that he finally became aware of his personal sinful state. This brings to mind Psalm 119:130: “The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.” The author’s realization of the seriousness of his failure to meet the standards required by God’s law and his subsequent turning to the Cross of Christ echoes Gal 3:24: “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Newell’s experience of the validity of this truth should remind the believer who desires to win souls that he must depend upon the Holy Spirit working through the written Word of God to bring conviction of sin and the need for a Savior to the unbeliever’s spirit.
The hymn’s refrain seems to express Newell’s experience at the point of his conversion. He found great mercy, free grace, “pardon multiplied,” and liberty. This is a clear statement of the doctrine of grace. Salvation is completely the result of God’s mercy, grace and pardon showered on undeserving sinners.
The author’s acknowledgement of Christ’s lordship in his life is clearly proclaimed in the song’s third stanza. It should be noted that the sequencing and the choice of words make it apparent that this dedication came as a result of the author’s experiencing of God’s saving mercy and grace rather than as a condition that had to be met before God would save him. Indeed, as the final phrase of the fourth stanza states, it was God who spanned the “mighty gulf” that sin has created between Him and man. No work, effort, or aspiration on the part of sinners could have served in any way to bridge this chasm.
Daniel Towner (1850-1919), who composed the tune used for “At Calvary,” was born in Rome, Pennsylvania. At the age of twenty he became the music director of the Centenary Methodist Episcopal Church in Binghamton, New York. He later served at the York Street Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio before joining
Dwight L. Moody in 1885.2 Beginning in 1893, and continuing until his death in 1919, he served as head of the music department at Moody Bible Institute.3 “He edited many hymnals and composed hundreds of songs, including ‘Redeemed,’ ‘Anywhere with Jesus,’ ‘Grace Greater than Our Sins,’ and ‘Trust and Obey.’4
Although many do not consider the melody of “At Calvary” to be one of Towner’s better compositions, it provides a classic example of the elements common to “gospel hymn” tunes; it is repetitive, it uses “bouncy” rhythmic patterns, it has a repeating refrain, it is in slow harmonic rhythm (i.e., only one or two chords are used in each measure), and it uses only the three primary chords of the key in which it is written. Because it invariably appears in hymnals in the key of C major (an easy key for most piano students), and because of its repetitiveness and simple harmonic structure, I have found this a good hymn for introducing students to hymn improvisation—the creation of an accompaniment to the melody other than the simple playing of the voice parts as printed in standard hymnals. It is satisfying to know that as students practice the music of this hymn they are also being exposed to lyrics which make such a clear statement regarding God’s grace in the salvation of sinful men, women, boys, and girls.
1For a brief summary of Newell’s ministry see this issue’s “Voice from the Past” (p. ).
2Phil Kerr, Music in Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), 181.
3William Jensen Reynolds, A Survey of Christian Hymnody (New York: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, Inc., 1963), 107.
4Kerr, Music, 181.