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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Spring1992—Volume 5:1

Grace in the Arts:

Toward Singing
with the Understanding

A Discussion of the Gospel Hymn—Part 1

Frances A. Mosher*

I. Introduction

Some standard hymnals are divided into topical sections such as "Worship," "Gospel Testimony," "Praise," or "Invitation." However, selections in a hymnal might also he divided according to historical, literary, and/or musical type and style. A particular type of congregational song known as the "gospel hymn" or "gospel song" (the two terms are used interchangeably) was first associated, not with traditional church worship, but with the mass revival meetings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term "gospel" in connection with this body of hymnody does not mean that all hymns in this category have the Gospel, per se, as their main theme or topic; gospel hymns treat a variety of topics. Their kinship lies in other common features.

Since its introduction, the gospel hymn has "gained a substantial place in the congregational singing of fundamentalist churches as well as in a number of America's evangelical denominations…"1 Indeed, in many such churches, songs of this type are used for a large percentage of the congregational singing. A survey of three standard hymnals currently used by church groups generally considered fundamental showed that a third or more of the selections in each book consisted of gospel hymns or their close relatives.

In light of its wide use in many Bible-believing churches, a consideration of the gospel hymn's history and characteristics as well as the doctrinal soundness of representative examples could aid us in singing both "with the spirit and with the understanding," as we are encouraged to do by 1 Cor 14:15.

II. History and Background

"The gospel hymn is a distinctively American phenomenon. It developed out of the camp meeting songs of the early decades of the nineteenth century."2 "The need for hymns simple and contagious enough to appeal to unlettered frontier folk brought into being a simplified folk hymn."3 By the latter half of the 1800's, these "folk hymns" had become so popular that they were adopted and further developed as a common feature of the urban revival movement.

During the Civil War the [YMCA] carried these hymns into the army and the Soldiers' Hymn Book became a leading instrument of army work… After the war, the "Y" began a large revival work in the cities of the North, and soon adopted the gospel hymn as its distinctive type. These hymns gave the evangelists of the postwar revival exactly the aid needed for their campaigns.4

It was through the campaigns of revivalist Dwight L. Moody (who began his revival career under the auspices of the YMCA) that the term "gospel hymn" came into use. In 1874, Philip Bliss, who served for a time as Moody's song leader, published a collection including many hymns of the new type. The title, Gospel Songs, was later modified when, in 1875, Bliss and Ira D. Sankey together published a similar collection entitled Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs.5 In all, six volumes were published under the latter title. The widespread sale of the volumes, and of the subsequent compilation of the six volumes under the title Gospel Hymns, Nos. 1-6 Complete, solidified use of the term "gospel hymn" or "gospel song" for a type of song heavily represented in the volume. (It should be noted that not all the selections in the Gospel Hymn volumes were gospel hymns. Hymns of other types were included.)

As might be expected, given the association of these hymns with the revival movement, "most authors were Protestant evangelicals, especially Methodists and Baptists."6 More women contributed to this segment of hymnody than to that of previous periods.7 For example, Fanny Crosby, surely the most prolific of the gospel hymn lyricists, authored more than 8,000 hymn texts.8

The lyrics of a number of the gospel hymns "had, in part, an independent existence, often appearing in religious periodicals as a poem without a tune."9 Prior to the emergence of the gospel hymn, hymn lyrics were only infrequently published independently.

While the heyday of gospel hymn writing took place during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some later composers and lyricists have continued to produce hymns rooted in the genre. A hymnal published in 1977 included forty-nine gospel hymns written in or after 1920, sixteen of those being written after 1950.

III. Musical Characteristics

Gospel hymns such as "Revive Us Again," "The Lily of the Valley," and "Only Trust Him" are no doubt considered quite traditional in most fundamental churches. It may, therefore, be amusing, enlightening, or both, to discover that the melodies used for gospel hymn texts often raised eyebrows when the gospel hymn was "the new kid on the block." In America, Lowell Mason (1792-1872) and Thomas Hastings (1784-1872), the leading "traditional" hymn writers of their day, "regarded unfit for religious use" the secular-sounding melodies employed for the new type of hymn being so successfully used in urban revivalism,10 However, it was in large part the gospel hymns' easy singability and catchy tunes that made them so easy to learn and remember.

To those who criticized his use of a secular-sounding gospel hymn, Homer Rodeheaver replied,

It was never intended for a Sunday morning service, not for a devotional meeting—its purpose was to bridge the gap between the popular song of the day and the great hymns and gospel songs, and to give men a simple, easy, lilting melody which they could learn the first time they heard it, and which they could whistle and sing wherever they might be.11

The new melodies penetrated even the music halls and were whistled by the men on the street…easy, catchy, sentimental, swaying with a soft or a martial rhythm and culminating in a taking refrain, calling for no musical knowledge to understand and no skill to render them; inevitably popular, with the unfailing appeal of a clear melody.12


Melodically, gospel hymns, as a group, are like any other type of well-written hymn for congregational singing in that they generally avoid frequent large or difficult intervals (the distance from one pitch to the next). The first musical feature which sets them apart from other types of hymns and which gives them their distinctive popular sound is their typical harmonic structure.13 "Gospel hymns use…simple harmonies consisting largely of the tonic, subdominant, and dominant chords in slow harmonic rhythm."14 The tonic (I), subdominant (IV), and dominant (V) chords are build on the first, fourth, and fifth tones, respectively, of the scale on which a melody is built, and are often called the "primary chords" of the key in question. "Slow harmonic rhythm" means that, for the most part, the same chord is used for one-half to one full measure or more before a different chord is employed. (A common exception to this occurs just before cadence points—places where the music temporarily "rests.") Other types of hymns may change the chord with each subsequent melodic note and frequently employ chords other than I, IV, and V. A gospel hymn tune is more likely to avoid modulation (a temporary shift out of the home key lasting for one or more measures) than are hymns of other types. Gospel hymns written since around 1920 often show more harmonic sophistication. The melody may allow for more rapid chord changes, a wider vocabulary of chords, and may employ modulation more frequently. "Gospel hymnody has not remained static in musical style…it has continued a process of development in its more than a century of existence."15


The second musical feature distinguishing the tunes of most gospel hymns from hymns of other types is rhythmic.

Although gospel hymns are frequently in simple meters such as 4/4 and 3/4, they make a greater use of compound meters [6/8, 9/8, 12/8,6/4] than any other body of hymn tunes…[and] dotted rhythms are…characteristic…. Some gospel hymns also make use of syncopated rhythms.16

These devices give the hymns the strong rhythmic lilt (or, in some cases, bounce!) and flow which makes them so appealing to many. Some examples of gospel hymns in compound meter are "Blessed Assurance," "Wonderful Words of Life," and "The Light of the World Is Jesus." "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," "Standing on the Promises," and "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story" are examples of gospel hymns which make especially extensive use of dotted rhythms.

IV. The Repeating Refrain

Perhaps the single most common and readily recognizable characteristic of a majority of gospel hymns is the repeating refrain, a feature which helped to give the songs the simplicity and easy learnability that made them so useful to the revivalists. "The basic technique of simplification is repetition."17 Few hymns written before the gospel hymn's advent had such refrains. A few well-known gospel hymns which lack the repeating refrain are "I've Found a Friend, Oh, Such a Friend," "Jesus Is All the World to Me," and "All the Way My Saviour Leads Me."

A comparison of the three musical settings of the hymn "All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" may be instructive. The lyrics were composed by Edward Perronet, who lived from 1726 to 1792, well before the introduction and popularization of the gospel hymn. The hymn tune "Coronation" often used for Perronet's lyrics was composed by Oliver Holden, who died in 1844, about the time the gospel hymn was coming into being. Predictably, "Coronation is not musically typical of most gospel hymns, nor is the alternate tune "Miles Lane" by William Shrubsole, who died in 1806. However, when a later composer, James Ellot (1819-1899), created a third setting, "Diadem," for these lyrics, he added a repeating refrain. While "Diadem" is on no other count typical of the gospel hymn, it would seem that Ellor was influenced in at least one regard by the new form which had become so popular.

V. Lyrics

In examining the lyrics of gospel hymns in order to discuss their common characteristics, the field for consideration has been limited to songs which appeared in Gospel Hymns, Nos. 1-6, Complete (1894), and which also appear in Worship in Song (1972), Hymns of Truth and Praise (1971), and/or The New Broadman Hymnal (1977).

A consideration of the writings of various authors on the topic of the gospel hymn reveals, in some instances, a somewhat condescending attitude toward the genre. This attitude seems to stem most often from an author's opinion that gospel hymns in general are overly subjective and sentimental, and that they overuse, or use unsophisticatedly, the literary devices of metaphor and contrast.

It is true that a much greater degree of subjectivity is the most consistent characteristic which sets the lyrics of gospel hymns as a whole apart from the lyrics of other types of hymns. In Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham, William G. McLoughlin, Jr. "links the Sankey hymns and Moody revivals to a general intellectual reorientation which took place…between the Civil War and World War I."18 This "intellectual reorientation" was likely, in part, the result of an integration into American culture of the romanticism that had characterized much of art, music, literature, and philosophy since the early decades of the 1800's. One of the main distinctives of romanticism is subjectivity—the placing of great importance on the individual's emotions, perceptions, and responses. We shall discuss later the scriptural validity and possible problems of such an approach to church music. Let us first, however, examine subjectivity as it is reflected in various themes and expressions which occur in specific gospel hymns, and compare these to expressions of similar themes in non-gospel hymns.


In "'Tis the Blessed Hour of Prayer," gospel hymn lyricist Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) penned these words:

'Tis the blessed hour of prayer,
when our hearts lowly bend,
And we gather to Jesus,
our Saviour and Friend.

John Newton (1725-1807), years before the gospel hymn appeared on the scene, approached the subject of prayer with the following words in "Behold the Throne of Grace"

Behold the throne of grace!
The promise calls us near!
To seek our God and Father's face,
Who loves to answer prayer.

A comparison of these two expressions concerning prayer reveals perhaps the most fundamental difference in outlook between gospel hymns in general and non-gospel hymns. Newton, while acknowledging that the Lord "loves to answer prayer," seems to see more distance between himself and the "God and Father" whose face he will seek, than does Crosby, who "gathers" to her "Saviour and Friend." In "Draw Me Nearer," Crosby wrote:

O the pure delight of a single hour
That before Thy throne I spend,
When I kneel in prayer and with Thee, my God,
I commune as friend with friend.

Crosby expresses a very personal, intimate view of God-a view typical of gospel hymns as a group. The impression is given of "Jesus…not as the distant creator deity, but as a friend."19

This much more personal, intimate, and, yes, subjective view of God is accompanied by an increased expression of concern with how we, personally, are affected experientially and emotionally by our relationship with God in its various aspects. The general outlook is brought to bear upon numerous hymn themes or topics.


A frequent theme found in Gospel Hymns is that of heaven. "Much nineteenth-century American hymnody is concerned with the afterlife. This is especially true of folk and gospel hymnody."20 In the gospel hymn's characteristically subjective viewpoint, hymns about heaven center on our place in heaven and the joys which we will experience there. This is Sanford Bennett's (1836-1893) outlook both in the first two stanzas and in the refrain of "There's a Land That Is Fairer Than Day."

There's a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar;
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there.

We shall sing on that beautiful shore
The melodious songs of the blest,
And our spirits shall sorrow no more,
Not a sigh for the blessing of rest.

In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore;
In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

Compare Bennett's hymn to one of the few non-gospel hymns which has heaven as its main theme—"Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," by John Newton.

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God;
He whose word cannot be broken
Formed thee for His own abode:
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation's walls surrounded,
Thou mayst smile at all thy foes.

See, the streams of living waters,
Springing from eternal love,
Well supply thy sons and daughters
And all fear of want remove;
Who can faint while such a river
Ever flows their thirst to assuage?
Grace which, like the Lord, the Giver,
Never fails from age to age.

Saviour, if of Zion's city
I, through grace, a member am,
Let the world deride or pity—
I will glory in Thy name.
Fading is the worldling's pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion's children know.

Newton looks forward to a home in heaven and its attendant bliss, but the hymn's focus is more on heaven as God's dwelling place into which He will graciously allow His sons and daughters.

References to heaven in songs predating the gospel hymn are often made obliquely through phrases such as "the throne of God" or "the Father's throne," or by mention of angels, or of singing, worshiping "throngs" or "multitudes." The emphasis is on heaven chiefly as the site from which God rules and judges and where He receives the worship that is His due. Fanny Crosby, in the gospel hymn "My Saviour First of All," also describes heaven as a place where the Saviour should have preeminence. However, note the proportion of lyrics devoted to this idea, and the proportion devoted to the author's or singer's projected personal experiencing of heaven:

When my lifework is ended, and I cross the swelling tide,
When the bright and glorious morning I shall see;
I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side,
And His smile will be the first to welcome me.

Oh, the soul-thrilling rapture when I view His blessed face,
And the luster of His kindly beaming eye;
How my full heart will praise Him for the mercy, love, and grace,
That prepare for me a mansion in the sky.

Oh, the dear ones in glory, how they beckon me to come,
And our parting at the river I recall;
To the sweet vales of Eden they will sing my welcome home;
But I long to meet my Saviour first of all.

Thro' the gates to the city in a robe of spotless white,
He will lead me where no tears will ever fall;
In the glad song of ages I shall mingle with delight;
But I long to meet my Saviour first of all.

I shall know Him, I shall know Him,
And redeemed by His side I shall stand,
I shall know Him, I shall know Him
By the print of the nails in His hand.

Aspiration or Devotion

A number of the gospel hymns could be grouped under the topic of "aspiration" or "devotion." This would include songs dealing with the Christian's desire to live a godly and spiritually fruitful life. In nineteenth-century hymnody, "There is an emphasis on hymns of devotion to Jesus and of a personal relationship to Christ."21 "I Need Thee Every Hour," by Annie S. Hawks (1835-1918), is an example:

I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.

I need Thee every hour, stay Thou near by;
Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh.

I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain;
Come quickly and abide, or life is vain.

I need Thee every hour, most Holy One;
O make me Thine indeed, Thou blessed Son!

I need Thee, O I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
O bless me now, my Saviour,
I come to Thee!

Two hundred years before the gospel hymn's debut, Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676) expressed similar thoughts, but in a much more objective way, in "Put Thou Thy Trust in God," translated by John Wesley (1703-1791).

Put thou thy trust in God,
In duty's path go on;
Walk in His strength with faith and hope,
So shall thy work be done.

Commit thy ways to Him,
Thy works into His hands,
And rest on His unchanging word,
Who heaven and earth commands.

Though years on years roll on,
His covenant shall endure;
Though clouds and darkness hide His path,
The promised grace is sure.

Through waves, and clouds, and storms
His power will clear thy way;
Wait thou His time; the darkest night
Shall end in brightest day.

Leave to His sov'reign sway
To choose and to command;
So shalt thou, wond'ring, own His way
How wise, how strong His hand.


It should not be surprising, given the gospel hymn's close connection with an evangelistic movement, that the aspiration frequently expressed in the hymns is toward the spreading of the Gospel and the winning of souls for Christ. This sentiment is not often found in other types of hymns. The greater importance which gospel hymns place upon public expression of the individual's needs and feelings apparently extends to public expression of one's concern for the needs and feelings of lost and suffering humanity. Fanny Crosby provides an example in "Rescue the Perishing."

Rescue the perishing
Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o'er the erring one,
Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.

Though they are slighting Him,
Still He is waiting,
Waiting the penitent child to receive;
Plead with them earnestly,
Plead with them gently,
He will forgive if they only believe.

Down in the human heart,
Crushed by the tempter,
Feelings lie buried that grace can restore;
Touched by a loving heart,
Wakened by kindness,
Chords that were broken will vibrate once more.

Rescue the perishing,
Duty demands it;
Strength for thy labor the Lord will provide;
Back to the narrow way
Patiently win them;
Tell the poor wanderer a Saviour has died.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.

Spiritual Warfare

Related to the theme of aspiration is that of spiritual warfare. One of the best-known gospel hymns addressing this theme is "Faith Is the Victory," by John H. Yates (1837-1900).

Encamped along the hills of light,
Ye Christian soldiers, rise,
And press the battle ere the night
Shall veil the glowing skies.

Against the foe in vales below,
Let all our strength be hurled;
Faith is the victory, we know,
That overcomes the world.

His banner over us is love,
Our sword the Word of God;
We tread the road the saints above
With shouts of triumph trod.

By faith they, like a whirlwind's breath,
Swept on o'er ev'ry field;
The faith by which they conquered death
Is still our shining shield.

On every hand the foe we find
Drawn up in dread array;
Let tents of ease be left behind,
And onward to the fray;

Salvation's helmet on each head,
With truth all girt about,
The earth shall tremble 'neath our tread,
And echo with our shout.

To him that overcomes the foe,
White raiment shall be giv'n;
Before the angels he shall know
His name confessed in heav'n.

Then onward from the hills of light,
Our hearts with love aflame,
We'll vanquish all the hosts of night,
In Jesus' conquering name.

Faith is the victory!
Faith is the victory!
Oh, glorious victory,
That overcomes the world.

An earlier lyricist, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), exhorted the Christian soldier with these words in "Soldiers of Christ, Arise":

Soldiers of Christ, arise,
And put your armor on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies
Through His eternal Son;
Strong in the Lord of hosts,
And in His mighty power,
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
Is more than conqueror.

Leave no unguarded place,
No weakness of the soul;
Take every virtue, every grace,
And fortify the whole.
To keep your armor bright
Attend with constant care,
Still walking in your Captain's sight
And watching unto prayer.

Stand then in His great might,
With all His strength endued,
And take, to arm you for the fight,
The panoply of God;
That having all things done,
And all your conflicts past,
Ye may o'ercome through Christ alone,
And stand complete at last.

Note that there are similar elements in both the Yates and the Wesley hymns. Believers are referred to as soldiers. Each discusses the Christian armor, an allusion to Eph 6:13-17. In both hymns, a reward on completion is promised to the overcomer. However, in "Faith Is the Victory," there is an emphasis on the Christian's participation in and experience of the battle. This facet is completely lacking in "Soldiers of Christ, Arise." Subjectivity enters even into warfare!

God's Love and Care

Many gospel hymns address the theme of God's love and care for us. One effect of subjectivity in this area is seen in an emphasis on Jesus' support in dealing with our earthly sorrows, fears, and trials. Consider the words to Fanny Crosby's "Safe in the Arms of Jesus":

Safe in the arms of Jesus
Safe on His gentle breast,
There, by His love o'ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
Hark! 'Tis the voice of angels
Borne in a song to me
Over the fields of glory,
Over the jasper sea.

Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe from corroding care,
Safe from the world's temptations—
Sin cannot harm me there.
Free from the blight of sorrow,
Free from my doubts and fears;
Only a few more trials,
Only a few more tears!

Jesus, my heart's dear refuge,
Jesus has died for me;
Firm on the Rock of Ages
Ever my trust shall be.
Here let me wait with patience,
Wait till the night is o'er,
Wait till I see the morning
Break on the golden shore.

Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast,
There, by His love o'ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.

Non-gospel hymns also deal with our need for Christ's support as we face life's trials. However, their focus and expression is usually a bit different, as we can see from "In the Hour of Trial," by James Montgomery (1771-1854).

In the hour of trial,
Jesus, be with me,
Lest, by base denial,
I depart from Thee;
When Thou seest me waver,
With a look recall;
Nor, thro' fear nor favor
Suffer me to fall.

With forbidden pleasures
Would this vain world charm,
And its sordid treasures
Spread to work me harm?
Bring to my remembrance
Sad Gethsemane,
Or, in darker semblance
Cross-crowned Calvary.

Should Thy mercy send me
Sorrow, toil, or woe;
Or should pain attend me
On my path below;
Grant that I may never
Fail Thy hand to see;
Grant that I may ever
Cast my care on Thee.

"Safe in the Arms of Jesus" is a statement concerning the emotional comfort which Jesus affords the believer in the midst of life's tribulations. "In the Hour of Trial" is a prayer for Jesus' presence during life's tribulations, not so much for the sake of emotional comfort, but as a safeguard to prevent the believer from failing his Lord.

Gospel Testimony

Certain hymn topics seem almost solely the domain of the gospel hymn. The hymn of "gospel testimony" is an example. In Hymns of Truth and Praise, the "Gospel Testimony" section includes sixty-one hymns. Forty-eight of these are gospel hymns in every sense. Eleven others were written in or after the latter 1800's, and their music and lyrics all show a definite gospel hymn influence. Given the subjectivity which we have been discussing, it is not surprising that the hymn of gospel testimony—in which the singer most often describes his salvation experience and what it has meant to him—should have come into prominence with the gospel hymn. An example of the gospel testimony hymn is "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story," by Francis H. Rowley (1854-1952).

I will sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
How He left His home in glory
For the cross of Calvary.

I was lost, but Jesus found me,
Found the sheep that went astray,
Threw His loving arms around me,
Drew me back into His way.

I was bruised, but Jesus healed me;
Faint was I from many a fall;
Sight was gone, and fears possessed me,
But He freed me from them all.

Days of darkness still come o'er me,
Sorrow's paths I often tread,
But the Saviour still is with me;
By His hand I'm safely led.

He will keep me till the river
Rolls its waters at my feet;
Then He'll bear me safely over,
Where the loved ones I shall meet.

Yes, I'll sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
Sing it with the saints in glory,
Gathered by the crystal sea.

Invitation and Decision

A second theme which seems the special property of the gospel hymn is that of invitation or decision—a predictable result of being rooted in evangelistic revivals. Subjectivity manifests itself in many of these hymns in an unabashed emotional appeal to the lost ones to whom the invitation is extended. A prime example of this is "I Am Praying for You," by S. O'Malley Clough (1837-1910).

I have a Saviour, He's pleading in glory,
A dear, loving Saviour, though earth-friends be few;
And now He is watching in tenderness o'er me,
And, oh, that my Saviour were your Saviour, too!

I have a Father: to me He has given
A hope for eternity, blessed and sure;
And soon He will call me to meet Him in heaven,
But, oh, that He'd let me bring you with me, too!

I have a peace; it is calm as a river—
A peace that the friends of this world never knew;
My Saviour alone is its author and giver,
And, oh, could I know it was given for you!

When He has found you, tell others the story
That my loving Saviour is your Saviour, too;
Then pray that your Saviour may bring them to glory,
And prayer will be answered-'twas answered for you!

For you I am praying,
For you I am praying,
For you I am praying,
I'm praying for you.


In addition to an overall subjectivity, a heavy use of metaphors22 is often specified as a distinctive feature of the gospel hymn by several of the authors whose works were examined.

It is clear from even a superficial reading that the gospel hymns are largely constructed around a series of metaphors in poetic form—Jesus as "shepherd;" life as a 'stormy sea'… Structural analysis shows that such metaphors consistently appear as elements in a group of contrasting sets.23

An example of extensive use of metaphor and contrast in a gospel hymn is "Jesus, I Come," by William T. Sleeper (1819-1904).

Out of my bondage, sorrow, and night,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy freedom, gladness and light,
Jesus, I come to Thee;
Out of my sickness into Thy health,
Out of my want and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of my shameful failure and loss,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into the glorious gain of Thy Cross,
Jesus, I come to Thee;
Out of earth's sorrows into thy balm,
Out of life's storms and into Thy calm,
Out of distress to jubilant psalm,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of unrest and arrogant pride,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into Thy blessed will to abide,
Jesus, I come to Thee;
Out of myself to dwell in Thy love
Out of despair into raptures above,
Upward for aye on wings like a dove,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of the fear and dread of the tomb,
Jesus, I come, Jesus, I come;
Into the joy and light of Thy home,
Jesus, I come to Thee;
Out of the depths of ruin untold,
Into the peace of Thy sheltering fold,
Ever Thy glorious face to behold,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

The entire hymn "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning," by Philip P. Bliss, is an extended metaphor in which the Gospel is portrayed as a lighthouse to give hope to those lost at sea (the unsaved), and in which Christians serve as lighthouse keepers.

Brightly beams our Father's mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor tempest tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

This likening of life's problems and/or the condition of the unsaved to storms or stormy seas, and of Jesus to shelter, safety, and calm is the poetic comparison which seems to occur most frequently in the selections from Gospel Hymns which are still in common use.

Another commonly occurring metaphor involves representing the world and its sinful condition by terms such as "darkness" or "night," and likening Jesus to "light" or "sunshine." (Note that both the storm/ calm and darkness/light metaphors occur in "Jesus, I Come," cited earlier.) In "Jesus Is Calling," Fanny Crosby asks, "Why from the sunshine of love wilt thou roam?" Another example of the darkness/ light metaphor is found in the fourth stanza of Crosby's "Safe In the Arms of Jesus," also cited above. And Philip P. Bliss's "The Light of the World Is Jesus" is built entirely around this metaphor.

In "Saved by Grace," Fanny Crosby uses two especially poetic metaphors to represent the idea of a Christian's death. The song opens with:

Some day the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing.

The third stanza depicts the Christian's death with these words:

Some day, when fades the golden sun
Beneath the rosy-tinted west…

The first verse of "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling," by Will L. Thompson (1847-1909), compares Jesus to one waiting at the doorway for an expected guest:

See, on the portals He's waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

"The Lily of the Valley," by Charles W. Fry (1837-1882), contains in its very title a metaphor for the Lord Jesus Christ, who is also described as "the Bright and Morning Star" in the hymn's chorus. In the second stanza, Fry writes:

In temptation He's my strong and mighty tower.

And the third stanza contains these words:

A wall of fire about me,
I've nothing now to fear,
With His manna He my hungry soul shall fill.
Then sweeping up to glory to see His blessed face,
Where rivers of delight shall ever roll.

The second and third stanzas of "Christ Liveth in Me," by Daniel W. Whittle (1840-1901), also offer some especially poetic imagery:

As rays of light from yonder sun,
The flowers of earth set free,
So life and light and love came forth,
From Christ living in me.

As lives the flow'r within the seed,
As in the cone the tree,
So, praise the God of truth and grace,
His Spirit dwelleth in me.

A strong use of metaphor and an increased subjectivity do, indeed, appear to be hallmarks of the gospel hymn. It seems open to debate, however, whether gospel hymns depend on metaphor and other types of figurative language considerably more than do non-gospel hymns; these devices occur in good poetry of all styles and eras (the Psalms are full of them). It is true that some specific images occur so often in gospel hymns as to come near the point of cliche, but there are also numerous examples of original and solidly descriptive figures of speech.

In truth, an overall survey of the old gospel hymns still in common use does not seem to support charges, from a literary point of view, of general over-subjectivity and emotionalism, nor of an excessive and tasteless use of cliched metaphors and contrasts. (This does not mean that there are not isolated examples of such.)

In pondering why my general findings did not match those of some of the research materials examined, I arrived at two possible explanations. First, the writers in question had considered the entire body of gospel hymns contained in Gospel Hymns, Nos. 1-6 Complete. Many of these hymns do not appear in many currently used hymnals. A number of the old hymns likely fell out of favor over the years precisely because of overly emotional subjectivism or lyrics flowery to the point of silliness. These negative qualities are not generally a factor in most of the hymns that have survived.

Second, some of the gospel hymn critics may have had only a casual knowledge of Scripture and, therefore, may have been unaware that many of the images and doctrinal concepts commonly found in gospel hymns are not attempts at romanticism on the part of the lyricists, but are, in fact, drawn from Scripture. For example, one writer spent several paragraphs discussing with a somewhat negative slant the "passivity" expressed in many of the gospel hymns. An examination of the lyrics of gospel hymns in current use, however, indicates not so much a negative passivity as an acknowledgment of the powerlessness of our own efforts either to save ourselves from sin eternally, or to experience victory over sin and to live a godly life presently. This is not a romantic concept developed in the late nineteenth century, but the thrust of scriptural teaching regarding man's relationship with God. It is also a concept which is completely foreign to the natural man.

[To be concluded in autumn issue]


*Pianist, Christ Congregation, Dallas, Texas

1Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath, Sing with Understanding (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 182

2Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scibner's Sons, 1950), 482.

3Eskew and McElrath, 164.

4Bailey, 483.

5Eskew and McElrath, 176.

6Sandra S. Sizer, Gospel Hymns and Social Religion (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978), 23.

7Sizer, 23.

8Eskew and MeFlrath, 169.

9Sizer, 9.

10Eskew and McElrath, 169.

11Ibid., 180.

12Bailey, 484.

13The gospel hymn's harmonic characteristics make it especially good for introducing piano students to hymn playing and to improvisation—creating a fuller accompaniment than can be achieved by playing only the voice parts as printed in a standard hymnal. So well does the gospel hymn lend itself to this type of improvisation that a certain style of accompaniment is sometimes called "gospel style." The music director of a small Southern Baptist church recently called to ask if I could provide from among my students a temporary substitute for his regular church pianist. He stated early in the conversation that he needed someone who could play the hymns "gospel style," and sure enough, every song he had planned for the following Sunday's meeting was a gospel hymn! Fortunately, I had a student who could supply the need and who enjoys playing gospel style, as do most students who learn the basic techniques involved. The problem then lies in helping them to discern which hymns are and which are not compatible with that style, and then in convincing them to use other styles of accompaniment for other types of hymns!

14Eskew and McElrath, 42.

15Ibid., 184.

16Ibid., 42.

17Ibid., 164.

18Sizer, 8.

19Ibid., 33.

20Eskew and McElrath, 175.

21Ibid., 175

22It should be noted that the word metaphor is not a technically correct term for all of the figures of speech in the gospel hymns to be cited. Some are actually examples of simile or metonymy. For convenience, the term metaphor will be used to refer to all of these figures of speech.

23Sizer, 24.

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