Wonderful Words of Life


A YEAR ago the Methodists released their new hymnbook, last revised in 1906, and styles in hymnology have undergone some changes. Those two exponents of the hell-and-blood school of vocal theology, the brothers Wesley, have had their representation cut, Charles from 121 to 54 hymns, and John from 50 to 17. Strange demands are made by sections of the church in various parts of the country; the Methodist Church South is said to have asked for a binding that cockroaches would not eat. The sales of the work will be promoted by the Methodist Book Concern, the astute business side of the church. It is optimistically estimated that the book will have twelve million users — if not purchasers.

The Presbyterian hymnal put out in 1933 was the result of seven years of careful, prayerful work. Out of a visible supply of 400,000 hymns, 5000 were examined to select 516 for the current opus. Regular church hymnbooks are revised and brought up to date as often as the traffic will stand, about once in twenty-five years.

But an even more significant trend is the gradual disappearance, from these and other modern collections, of the so-called ‘gospel hymns,’ once sung by millions, and known by heart today by thousands old enough to have attended Sunday School in their heyday. They are preserved from oblivion by radio pluggers who conduct hymn sings over the air in approved revival fashion, and by barroom vocalists who, when the right degree of sentimentality has been reached, break out into gospel hymns sung from painful memory. Soused contestants vie in recalling and singing the greatest number of verses from the greatest number of hymns, and there are virtuosos who can go on for hours without repeating.

In the 1870’s there appeared a hymnbook which broke sharply with the old church tradition of lugubrious lyrics and added fervor to the devotions of groups of young people in Sunday Schools, Y. M. C. A.’s, Epworth Leagues, Christian Endeavors, and Bands of Hope. Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs, by P, P. Bliss and Ira D. Sankey (appropriately published by the John Church Company), was the title of this dynamic work, which dented the American mind at least as deeply as McGuffey’s moral textbooks. The first number appeared in 1875, and by 1891 six successive collections had been published, circulated, and sung.

The devastating effect of these compilations on the American mind in the Garfield and Arthur eras has never received the consideration from social philosophers it so richly merits. By dint of repetition at the most impressionable years these words and tunes were indelibly stamped on the memory of youth, and to some of us they were all of poetry and music we imbibed, and no life has been long enough to forget them. They cling to the memory like cockleburs. Some of us find them as persistent as Mark Twain found ‘Punch, Brother, Punch,’but not so entertaining.

Churches in those days had their own exclusive sectarian hymnbooks, large black volumes with red edges, which, even if they did not explicitly promote their dogmas, contained nothing contrary to them. Certain old and famous hymns and tunes were common to all church books, the Doxology, ‘Old Hundred,’ ‘Lead, Kindly Light,’and ‘Rock of Ages.’ which even a Baptist or Methodist could sing without violence to his conscience; but mainly they were assembled along the lines of Congregational hymns for Congregationalists, Presbyterian airs for Presbyterians, and you could n’t give out a hymn in a crowd of mixed Christians and be sure of a whole-hearted response.

These books were used upstairs in the church, but downstairs in the Sunday School room a more liberal spirit was astir. Sunday School lessons had become international, thanks to Peloubet’s Select Notes, and his work was the standard textbook, relieving volunteer teachers of the responsibility of deciding how much of the Bible was fit to be taught to adolescent minds. It was Peloubet who set the little Baptists and Congregationalists all over Christendom reciting the same lesson and the same golden text on the same Sunday.

Need was felt for a musical common denominator on which all could raise their voices without conflicting with those technical points which make Congregationalists and Presbyterians so alike and so different. It was this hiatus which Messrs. Bliss and Sankey so ably filled with gospel hymns.

Dwight L. Moody was sweeping the English-speaking world with highpressure evangelism directed against gospel resistance. He understood the value of music, or at least singing, in working up that emotional pitch so necessary to what is technically known as conversion. His illustrious predecessor, Charles G. Finney, originator of revival technic (the famous Mr. Finney, who had the turnip), got along without much music. He had dramatic gifts at least as effective for harrowing up the feelings. But Moody believed the adage that he who wrote a nation’s songs could defy decisions of the supreme court, and gospel hymns became the nation’s songs. The orthodox church books were of no use to him. They were mainly liturgical, arranged for the worship of God by safe and satisfied Christians, with nothing on their minds but their Sunday dinners. What he needed was ‘gospel’ hymns to worry and disturb and get action; livelier music than the slow-paced church hymnals afforded; something the multitude could join in on and raise the roof.

He found Sankey and got them.


Ira David Sankey was known as the ‘singing evangelist.’ He was tall, stout, imposing, rather unctuous, and wore English mutton-chop whiskers. His was not a great voice in the musical sense, but he knew how to put fervor into it. A goodly proportion of the thousands of souls brought into the fold by the famous firm of Moody and Sankey during their twenty-five years of work together should be credited to Sankey’s not too good singing of second-rate songs.

His colleague, Philip Paul Bliss, wrote some of the most popular hymns. Everyone in the 1880’s not wholly beyond redemption knew ‘Dare to Be a Daniel,’‘Almost Persuaded,’‘Hold the Fort,’‘Pull for the Shore, Sailor,’‘Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,’‘Whosoever Will,’and ‘Wonderful Words of Life.’ These were the most popular, but also the most ephemeral. Hymnbooks widely used to-day have no place for Bliss, though Sankey is still represented by the air he wrote for ‘I’m Praying for You’ to words by S. O’Maley Cluff. Bliss was killed in the Ashtabula railroad disaster. His tomb bears the simple inscription, ‘Author of “Hold the Fort."‘ Both ‘Hold the Fort’ and ‘Dare to Be a Daniel’ were prohibited by the Sultan of Turkey.

A popular tear-starter by Bliss, often sung to the very young in the 1880’s to prepare them to meet their end in the right spirit, ranks with ‘Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?‘ It began thus: —

‘I should like to die,’ said Willie, ‘if my papa could die too,
But he says he is n’t ready ’cause he has so much to do;
But my little sister Nellie says that I must surely die,
And mama — and then she stopped because she saw it made me cry.’

Bliss and Sankey were not, as you might suspect, a sort of evangelical Gilbert and Sullivan, one writing the words, the other the music. (Sullivan, by the way, wrote hymns. ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers,’to words by S. Baring-Gould, with its stirring march tune, is by the author of ‘Three Little Maids from School.‘) Gospel Hymns was a compilation, though both editors contributed. Bliss wrote both hymns and tunes, but Sankey composed music only, usually impromptu. His method was to collect fugitive pieces from the poet’s corner of newspapers, with an eye to devotional content rather than literary merit, and write his own tune or assign the job to one of his journeyman hymn writers. He had a scrapbook full of such random verse, the quality of which may be inferred from its source.

Traveling to Edinburgh to conduct a meeting, he cut from a Glasgow newspaper some lines by Elizabeth Clephane entitled ‘The Ninety and Nine’ and read them to Moody, who paid no attention. That night when Moody asked if he had a song appropriate to the occasion, Sankey pulled out the cutting, set it on the organ rack, and sang it offhand. ‘Where did you get that?‘ asked Moody. ‘That’s the piece you would n’t listen to this morning.’ It was one of Sankey’s favorites and had a tremendous vogue, but it contains some awkward, almost unsingable lines: —

‘Lord, thou hast here thy ninety and nine:
Are they not enough for thee?’
But the shepherd made answer, ‘ This of mine
Has wandered away from me;
And although the road be rough and steep
I go to the desert to find my sheep.’

P. T. Barnum, at one of the gospel meetings, gently resisting the wellmeant efforts to gather him in, said to Sankey, ‘You go on singing “The Ninety and Nine,”and when you get that last sheep in the fold we shall all be saved.’ Barnum, it seems, was a Universalist.

Most hymns made religious history, or were the result of it. ‘Here I Am, Take Me,’was sung in the Senate when Lincoln was present; much impressed, he called for an encore. In London a singing actress, suddenly converted, came down to the lights for her regular number, stopped the show, and paralyzed the waiting orchestra by singing ‘Depths of Mercy, Can It Be.’ She left the stage and became a minister’s wife.

Some of the hymns were inspired by what might be called current events — flood, fire, battle, shipwreck.

Let the lower lights be burning,
Send the gleam across the wave;
Some poor struggling, shipwrecked seaman
You may rescue, you may save,

drew a moral lesson from a ship wrecked in Cleveland Harbor when her master lost his bearings because the harbor lights were missing. Sherman, going to the rescue of Corse, defending stores and supplies in a small fort in Allatoona Pass, wigwagged ‘Hold the fort; I am coming. Sherman.’ Corse held it, though with great loss, and was finally relieved. Hence Bliss’s most famous hymn: —

‘Hold the fort for I am coming,’
Jesus signals still.
Wave the answer back to heaven:
‘By thy grace we will.’

Gospel Hymns were the successors to the old camp-meeting spirituals — not so crude, but with the same jump and go. The tunes were characterized by contagious melody, dance rhythms, climactic catchwords, the qualities that make popular secular songs whistleable.

On the cross He sealed my pardon (sealed
my pardon, sealed my pardon),
Paid the debt, and made me free (and
ma-a-ade me free-e-e). . . .

Crown Him, crown Him, angels, crown Him; Crown the Savior King of kings. . . .

Hallelujah, thine the glory!
Hallelujah, amen!
Hallelujah, thine the glory,
Revive us again. . . .

Bliss was particularly good at catchy melody, joyousness, and the martial note: —

Whosoever heareth, shout, shout the sound;
Send the blessed tidings all the world around.
Whosoever will MAY COME!
Beautiful words,
Wonderful words,
Wonderful words of life! . . .

Besides the shouting genus, there were narratives in ballad style, telling a story, always a popular form (‘I love to tell the story’), such as: —

‘ Master, the tempest is raging;
The billows are tossing high;
The sky is o’ershadowed with blackness,
No shelter nor help is nigh.
Carest thou not that we perish?
How canst thou lie asleep,
When each moment so madly is threatening
A grave in the angry deep?’
‘The winds and the waves shall obey my will,
Peace, be still; peace, be still.
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea,
Or demons, or men, or whatever it be,
No water can swallow the ship where lies
The master of ocean and earth and skies —
They all shall sweetly obey my will,
Peace be still, Peace — peace — be — still.’

The songs made up in piety and enthusiasm for what they lacked as poetry. A syllable too much or too little was easily slurred in mass singing. Little effort was made toward rhyme or metre; the same rhymes were used over and over. ‘Blood’ was made to rhyme with ‘God,’ ‘o’er me’ with ‘glory,’ ‘seen’ with ‘sin,’ ‘riven’ with ‘heaven,’ and not a soul was kept from salvation thereby. One we never could refrain from giving its proper rhyme: —

O word of words, the sweetest;
O words in which there lie
All promise, all fulfillment,
And end of myster-eye.

The blood atonements of the Old Testament imagery were not played up as much as of yore.

Sweeping through the gates to the new Jerusalem;
Washed in the blood of the lamb,

and that barroom favorite,

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains,

— written, by the way, by William Cowper, — did not evoke pleasant associations for the squeamish. The gospel-hymn idea was to get away from hell and blood and put more snap into the worship of God. Emphasis was on the joys of the blest rather than the tortures of the damned. Compare this gem from the good Dr. Watts, —

Loud Hallelujahs to the Lord
From distant worlds where creatures dwell!
Let heaven begin the solemn word
And sound it dreadful down to hell,

with the immensely popular ‘Beulah Land’: —

I’ve reached the land of corn and wine,
And all its riches freely mine;
Here shines undimmed one blissful day,
For all my night has passed away.

The proselyting motif was not forgotten. There was a good deal of pursuing the erring, rescuing the perishing, and working up of emotional excitement: —

Alas, and did my Savior bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

When Bliss was killed, Sankey was joined by Charles Coles Stebbins and James McGranahan, both proved hymn writers, in the compilation of gospel hymns, and the good work went on.

There were two names enshrined in the hearts of all Christian Endeavorers and Epworth Leaguers of those times, two bluestockings whose output was chiefly hymns, Frances Ridley Havergal and Fanny Crosby. Miss Havergal began writing at a tender age and produced reams of hymns, the bestknown being, —

I gave, I gave my life for thee;
What hast thou given for me?

Fanny Crosby, the ‘blind poetess,’ was equally precocious and prolific. She wrote her first hymn at the age of six, lived to be ninety-eight, and wrote six thousand hymns, ‘mostly oyster shells,’ as one critic remarked, ‘but with now and then a pearl.’ She is best known, perhaps, by ‘There ’s Music in the Air,’ but of her hymns ‘Safe in the Arms of Jesus’ is probably a pearl; at least it is retained in most collections. The Methodist Church once celebrated ‘Fanny Crosby Day.’

Among writers otherwise known to fame who have written hymns which ‘made’ these famous collections are Phœbe Cary (‘One Sweetly Solemn Thought’) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (‘Knocking, Knocking, Who Is There?’)


Dwight L. Moody put gospel hymns over. They took England and Scotland by storm. Oxford, Cambridge and Eton were converted. Gladstone and Lord Kinnaird attended meetings, and Queen Victoria, the Princess of Wales, and members of the royal family heard the songs from their private box at Her Majesty’s Theatre. England was wholly sold on them. When music-hall entertainers tried to burlesque them, the audience broke out in song. At a circus in Dublin one clown asked another: —

‘I am rather Moody; how you feeling?’

‘I feel Sankeymonious.’

The sally was greeted with boos and hisses; the whole audience rose and sang ‘Hold the Fort’ by way of rebuke.

Gospel hymns spread like wildfire over the Western prairies. They were ice breakers for frozen prayer meetings, used for all religious meetings from Band of Hope to Chautauqua convocations, from Baptist Young People’s Unions to Gideon’s Bands (‘O, do you belong to Gideon’s Band?’), by all denominations except Episcopalians and Catholics, who have a classic heritage of far greater music. The time was ripe for them. There was little to distract the young from the worship of God; religion did not have to compete with radio, movie, and motorcar. Revivals were scenes of emotional excitement for sex-starved females who expended their energies in converting their men friends. The books were in every home on the back of the Estey organ or the Mathushek square piano, and social gatherings wound up with a good sing. Well might it be asked, as one of the hymns searchingly did, ‘What, oh, what shall the harvest be?’

Sales exceeded those of any current publication; the profits were large. No figures are available, but in the life of Moody by his son it is mentioned that the royalties for the first ten years were $357,388.64, an amount so meticulous as to be convincing. At thirty-five cents a copy, with 10 per cent royalty, it would mean over ten million copies. And the sales after 1885 must have been greater.

Neither Moody nor Sankey touched the money. A trust was set up for the fund; William E. Dodge was one of the trustees, and the profits were devoted to pious works, but largely to support preparatory schools at Northfield, Massachusetts, Moody’s home town; and, despite the tautness of religious lines, they are excellent schools.

Gospel hymns have passed. The six collections are still published, in one volume with duplicates eliminated, but it is merely a curio. The Hope Publishing Company of Chicago is said to hold the copyrights of the old headliners, — Bliss, Sankey, Stebbins, McGranahan, Fanny Crosby, and other shining lights, — and to do a tidy business in ‘permissions.’ Arthur Billings Hunt, who conducts a Sunday-evening hymn sing over the radio, is a customer for ‘permissions,’ and finds Fanny Crosby a good ‘buy’ for his public. He writes hymns of his own and sends them out to inquirers on leaflets at five cents a copy. The Gospel Singers over NBC network have compiled a hymnbook which has in one year exhausted three editions, running from ten to fifteen thousand copies each. It was brought out by Homer Alvan Rodeheaver, who was Billy Sunday’s Man Friday, as Sankey was Moody’s.

There were other collections during those fruitful years between 1870 and 1890 when gospel hymns rolled over the prairies, but none which went over with such a bang as Sankey’s collections. Their popularity is easily explained. Religion was due for another lightening of its gloomy burden which rested so heavily on the spirits of youth, to keep the next generation from kicking over the traces. The process had been going on since the Pilgrims landed on that stern and rockbound coast and began to promulgate their stern and rock-bound tenets. Just as Lyman Beecher in the thirties mitigated the tortures of infants damned under Jonathan Edwards’s intolerable theory of original sin, so Moody and Sankey played down the insistence on hell and blood which had made Finney and his ‘Holy Band’ holy terrors to scared young sinners in the forties, and played up the blessings of the saved:—

There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar . . .


Not half of that city’s bright glory
To mortals has ever been told.

The new hymns represented relief from the grimmer religion of the previous generation, and to youth meant escape. Whether this was sound theology or not, it was good psychology, and saved the day for another generation. So gay were some of the tunes which Sankey roared out in his barytone voice that Moody had misgivings, and once requested Sankey not to sing ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ again, as some of the ministers feared it would set the young people to dancing.

The hymns were a real resource to rural towns, so barren of amusement; reluctant and hardened youths were compelled to attend prayer meetings and Sunday School or eschew social life, for social life meant girls, and girls meant facing the music of Sankey, Bliss, McGranahan, and Stebbins, and thus we all learned them, willy-nilly. They were bound to spread, for they possessed the seeds of popularity and were constructed on an approved model, that of popular secular songs. They had not only the catchy music but the sentimental wording of such ditties as ‘Twenty Years Ago,’ ‘Old Black Joe,’ and ‘I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard.’

Popular music as an exponent of national emotions and tendencies has never received the respectful study it merits. Plato says in the Republic (though I got it from Mark Sullivan’s Our Times), ‘Styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions.’ Some day some social philosopher will explore the gospel-hymn era for its deeper implications. Meanwhile those who still know the hymns by heart are dying off, and the modern glorified cocktail bar does not lend itself to barroom sentimental vocalization.

Thus it is strange, considering the impression they made on the American mind for two decades, that those six hymnbooks in sober gray boards with black muslin backs, each accompanied by a smaller edition in paper wrappers with words only, — for those who could carry the tune, or perhaps could n’t sing anyway, — have escaped the eagle eyes of collectors of Americana, which have ferreted out Currier and Ives prints, Will Carleton’s Farm Ballads, and the immortal works of Mr. Beadle and Nick Carter. They all belong to the same phase of our emotional history. But I have never seen them listed, not even in the catalogues of that one-hundred-per-cent Americana specialist, Heartman of Metuchen.