Nelson Reference & Electronic
His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue. 2 Peter 1:3 (NKJV)
After their marriage, Charles and Sally Wesley set up housekeeping in Bristol, England, heading up the Methodist activities there. Later they moved to London so Charles could work more closely with his brother, John. All the while, however, he was writing hymns. There are few stories behind specific hymns because Charles was just always writing them. He didn't need events to inspire him or quiet stretches of meditative time in which to develop his thoughts. He was just always writing hymns, and afterward he had few if any dramatic stories to tell about the occasions for writing them.
Biographer Arnold Dallimore says about his poetry: ‘‘He had inherited this gift from his father and although it had undoubtedly been resident in him since childhood, his conversion unlocked it and set it free. During [his] early ministry he says little in his journal about his composing hymns and, indeed, this is true throughout his life. But he had within him virtually a treasury of poetry. He constantly experienced the emotions of the true poet, his mind instinctively invested words with harmony, and hymn after hymn flowed from his pen.’’
Henry Moore, one of his friends, later described Charles like this: ‘‘When he was nearly eighty he rode a little horse, gray with age. . . . Even in the height of summer he was dressed in winter clothes. As he jogged leisurely along, he jotted down any thought that struck him. He kept a card in his pocket for this purpose, on which he wrote his hymn in shorthand. Not infrequently he had come to our house in City Road, and, having left the pony in the garden in front, he would enter, crying out, ‘Pen and ink! Pen and ink!’ These being supplied he wrote the hymn he had been composing.’’
How many hymns did Wesley compose? No one has been able to count them. In all, Charles wrote over nine thousand literary texts of one kind or another, but not all of them should be classified as hymns. Experts put the number somewhere between three thousand and six thousand. Among all of them, ‘‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’’ is the favorite of many.
Charles’s last hymn was dictated to his beloved Sally as he was on his deathbed, in March, 1788. It was short, simple, and picturesque. Predictably, it, too, became a popular one-verse song among the Methodists:
In age and feebleness extreme, / Who shall a helpless worm redeem?
Jesus, my only hope Thou art, / Strength of my failing flesh and heart,
Oh, could I catch a smile from Thee / And drop into eternity!
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. Mark 13:26 (NKJV)
William Wilberforce, the Christian statesman and abolitionist, led a fierce campaign in nineteenth-century England to eradicate slavery from the British Empire. The geographical center of the campaign was a wealthy neighborhood in the south of London known as Clapham, where a group of Anglican evangelicals lived. The ‘‘Clapham Sect’’ also advocated prison reform, education for children, and the expansion of missionary efforts overseas. Though lampooned for their efforts, they changed the world.
Arabella Katherine Hankey was born into this environment in 1834. Her father was a banker in Clapham and a leader in the Clapham Group. Early in life, Kate became involved in religious work. As a young girl, she taught Sunday school; and when she was eighteen she organized a Bible study for factory girls in London. (This Bible study was never large, but the girls became close and fifty years later, five of them met together at Kate’s funeral.) When her brother fell ill in Africa, Kate traveled there to bring him home. That trip sparked a passion for foreign missions, and in later life Kate devoted all proceeds from her writing to missionary work.
During the winter of 1865–1866, Kate, thirty, became seriously ill. The doctors warned her to abandon her Christian activities and remain in bed for a full year. To occupy her time, Kate wrote a poem of one hundred stanzas entitled ‘‘The Old, Old Story.’’ She began the first section, ‘‘The Story Wanted,’’ on January 29, 1866. Later that year, she wrote a second section entitled, ‘‘The Story Told.’’
The following year, at the international convention of the Young Men’s Christian Association, Major General Russell ended his powerful sermon by quoting from Kate’s poem. It left the audience breathless. Songwriter William Doane, in the crowd that day, put a portion of Kate’s poem to music, giving birth to the hymn, ‘‘Tell Me the Old, Old Story.’’
Another composer, William G. Fischer, set a second portion of Kate’s poem to a musical score he named HANKEY, and thus we have this hymn, ‘‘I Love to Tell the Story.’’ It was first published in an American hymnbook in 1869, and was later popularized around the world in the great evangelistic campaigns of D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey.
The chariots of God are twenty thousand, Even thousands of thousands; The Lord is among them . . . Psalm 68:17 (NKJV)
It had been a gray, overcast day in Oberlin, Ohio. Delegates to the National Council of Congregational Churches were weary from the dismal weather and long business sessions. When the meeting recessed, singers from Fisk University filed quietly into the choir loft. Suddenly the clouds parted and sunshine streamed through the windows. Delegates stopped talking, and every face turned toward the music. ‘‘Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,’’ came the song in beautiful, brooding harmony. After a moment of stunned silence, the convention burst into wild applause and cries for more.
Among the delegates was Henry Ward Beecher, a noted pastor from Brooklyn who immediately begged the group to cancel its tour and come directly to his church in New York. Unable to do that, director George White offered the group for a December concert.
Knowing the importance of this engagement, White agonized about naming his group; and in Columbus, Ohio, after spending much of the night in prayer, he found the answer. They would be the Jubilee Singers, the biblical year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 being a time of liberation for slaves.
On December 27, 1871, the Jubilee Singers sang at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. Rev. Beecher, deeply moved, stood and said, ‘‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to do what I want every person in this house to do.’’ He turned his pockets inside out, giving all the money to the Jubilee Singers. That night the offering was $1,300! Newspapers picked up the story, and soon the Jubilee Singers had engagements around the world.
In their concerts, the section that most stirred their audiences was their ‘‘spirituals’’—those soulful plantation songs born of slavery and full of yearning.
In 1872, gospel music publisher Biglow & Main hired a musicianto meet the Jubilee Singers and record these timeless, authorless songs on paper. Later that year, a little volume was published under the title: Jubilee Songs: Complete. As Sung by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. It was a milestone for both gospel and popular music; it introduced the ‘‘Negro Spiritual’’ to America and to the world. Among the favorites were ‘‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen’’ and ‘‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’’
Thanks to the Jubilee Singers, Fisk University is still training young people today—and still sending out its Jubilee Singers to churches and concert halls across America and around the world.