Listening for Lent: An Introduction to the Hymns

This year, our Lenten theme is Listening for Lent. 

Over these many months of pandemic life, our community has clung to music to bring us joy, offer us solace, hold us together, and keep us rooted in our faith.  It seems right, then, that our Lenten observance this year would follow the soundtrack of this liturgical season.  What better way is there to observe the season of Lent than to listen deeply for it?  Our incredibly gifted Minister of Music, Dr. Frank Glass, has selected 9 notable hymns of Lent to guide our reflection. 

Follow us on Facebook to the daily reflections during Lent (February 17-April 4, 2021).

February 17-21

February 22-26

February 27-March 3

March 4-7

March 8-11

March 12-17

March 18-22

March 23-28

March 29-April 5

United Methodist Hymnal #301
Words: Fanny Crosby, 1869
Music: NEAR THE CROSS William H. Doane, 1869
Hymn Introduction by Dr. Frank Glass

Imagine, for a moment, that you were born blind and, for all ninety-five years of your life, you remained blind. You never saw anything, anything at all. But you could taste and smell and feel and think.  Now, imagine that you were born not in whatever year you were actually born, but in 1820.  So, you were six years old when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died; seven years old when Beethoven died; and nine years old when Andrew Jackson was elected president of the United States.

What sort of life might you have made for yourself in those difficult days? Or allowed others to make for you?  Would you, as a ten-year-old, have begun to exercise your mind by memorizing five chapters of the Bible each week?  At the age of fifteen, would you have enrolled in the New York Institution for the Blind?  Would you have studied there until you were twenty-three? Returned later to teach?  Would you have learned to play the piano, organ, harp, and guitar?  Would you have become a good singer as well?  Would you have attended a variety of churches almost obsessively?  Gone on to write almost 9,000 hymns with more than 100 million copies in print?  Would you have lived close to poverty most of your life?  Even when wealthy friends offered to help—in fact, did help—would you have given away most of that financial assistance in order to help people less fortunate than yourself?  At the end of your life, would you have wanted to be remembered, not for the fame hymn-writing had brought you but, instead, for the tireless devotion you personally brought to your work on behalf of rescue missions?  And about that hymn-writing, would you ever have said and meant: “If perfect earthly sight were offered me, I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things around me”?

Frances Jane van Alstyne (neé Crosby) was born in Brewster, NY, on March 24, 1820; she died in Bridgeport, CT, on February 12, 1915.

One of Fanny Crosby’s wealthy friends was William Howard Doane.  Born in Preston, CT, in 1832, he was one of those people who, from a young age, showed an aptitude for music and musical instruments that allowed him, on the cusp of adolescence, to play the flute, violin, and double bass and, during his time as a student at Woodstock Academy, to serve as the school’s choir director.  On his graduation from Woodstock at the age of sixteen, he ended his “formal” education and went to work as an accountant in his father’s cotton manufacturing company.  From there, he moved to J.A. Fay and Company, which built woodworking machines, and began a long career that led to becoming president of the company, at the age of thirty-four.  His managerial skills were matched, or even exceeded, by his skills as an inventor of woodworking machines and parts.  He was, simultaneously, the president of a trust company, director of a car company, and “fellow” in three engineering and scientific societies.  And, as if that weren’t enough, he never ceased his work as a musician and philanthropist.

Doane edited forty-three collections of hymns and composed over 2,000 hymns and hymn settings.  With Fanny Crosby alone, he wrote music for almost 1,500 of her poems.  Not all of those were pure gold.  How could they be?  But enough were actually or close enough to “gold” to make multitudes of people forever grateful for the unlikely (in some ways) but very likely (in others) partnership.  Here are a few of their joint efforts: “Though Your Sins Be as Scarlet”; “I Am Thine, O Lord”; “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”; “Rescue the Perishing.” And, of course: “Jesus, Keep Me near the Cross.”  Twelve years younger than Crosby, Doane died in South Orange, NJ, on December 23, 1915, not quite a year after she did.

United Methodist Hymnal #361
Words: Augustus Toplady, 1776
Music: TOPLADY Thomas Hastings, 1830
Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

Augustus Montague Toplady was born in Surrey in November 1740.  At the age of sixteen, shortly after his enrollment in Trinity College, Dublin, he heard one of John Wesley’s followers preach and was deeply affected: “Strange that I . . . should be brought nigh unto God in an obscure part of Ireland, amidst a handful of God’s people met together in a barn, and under the ministry of one who could hardly spell his name. Surely, this is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous.” 

By 1758, however, Toplady had become an extreme Calvinist in his theology.  He was eighteen years old at the time; John Wesley was fifty-five.  I mention the age gap, not to excuse either man, but to give some “long ago and far away” historical context to the ill-tempered exchanges that sometimes took place between the two, until Toplady died of consumption in 1778, at the age of thirty-seven.  John Wesley was seventy-five then; he went on to outlive Toplady by twelve years.

An edition of Toplady’s writings, published in 1825, runs to six volumes and includes his Poems on Sacred Subjects, wherein the Fundamental Doctrines of Christianity, with many other interesting Points, are occasionally introduced (1759); Hymns and Sacred Poems on a variety of Divine Subjects (1760); and Psalms & Hymns for Public and Private Worship (1776).  Of all the hymns in these volumes, only about one hundred and thirty are by Toplady himself.  

Here, from John Julian’s 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology, is A.B. Grosart’s summary of Toplady’s life and work: “He was impulsive, rash-spoken, reckless in misjudgment; but a flame of genuine devoutness burned in the feeble lamp of his overtasked and wasted body. Regarded critically, it must be stated that the affection with which Toplady is named—and the glow and passion of his faith and life, and his yearning after holiness—have led to an over-exaltation of him as a hymnwriter.  Many of his hymns have been widely used…. Year by year, however, the number is becoming less. The reason is soon to be found. He is no poet or inspired singer. He climbs no heights. He sounds no depths. He has mere vanishing gleams of imaginative light. His greatness is the greatness of goodness. He is a fervent preacher, not a bard.”

Of all the words Augustus Toplady wrote in his life, those he wrote for his hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” are the ones by which he is most remembered today.

Thomas Hastings was born in Litchfield County, CT, in October 1784; two years later, his family moved to Clinton, NY.  There, as a largely self-taught young musician, he began a career as a singing teacher.  He moved from Clinton, to Troy, to Albany, to Utica, where he wrote articles on church music for the Western Recorder and subsequently founded the Musical Magazine, which brought him into contact with Lowell Mason (who, subsequently, became infinitely more famous as a hymn writer).  Together, in 1831, they compiled the Spiritual Songs hymn book, which included Hastings’ most famous hymn tune “Rock of Ages.”

Hastings’ 1822 Dissertation on Musical Taste was notable in promoting his and Mason’s views that American hymns should shift from the British folk style so prevalent in early American music to the more “cultivated” German models.  And for many years, owing primarily to Mason’s influence, they did just that.

United Methodist Hymnal #504
Words: George Bennard, 1913
Music: THE OLD RUGGED CROSS George Bennard, 1913
Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

George Bennard was born in the coal-mining town of Youngstown, OH, in February 1873.  His family subsequently moved to Albia and then to Lucas, IA.  When his father died, George took on additional responsibilities to help support his family. He eventually married and, after being converted in a Salvation Army meeting, he and his wife began serving as brigade leaders.  In that capacity, George preached throughout the United States and in Canada as well, before leaving the organization to be ordained and to evangelize in what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church.  He said he wrote the first verse of “The Old Rugged Cross” in the fall of 1912, as a reaction to being ridiculed at a revival meeting. Then, on a trip to Sturgeon Bay, WI, to hold evangelistic meetings at a Friends Church over the first two weeks of 1913, he finished the remaining verses; and on the final night, performed the whole song for the first time.  Bennard, who had only written the words and tune, said the well-known gospel song writer Charles Gabriel helped him with the harmonies.  In 1915, the song was published by Homer Rodeheaver (who had acquired the copyright for $500) and was popularized during the Billy Sunday evangelistic crusades by two singers on Sunday’s staff:  Rodeheaver himself and Virginia Asher, a gospel singer and Sunday’s “evangelist to businesswomen.”  (Yes, I wondered about that, too.)  Rodeheaver and Asher made the first recording of the song in 1921.

George Bennard wrote a hundred hymn texts and thirty hymn tunes, but you’d be more likely to be knocked on the head by falling space debris than ever finding someone who could name any one of those songs beyond “The Old Rugged Cross.”  The odds would be slightly higher, I think, for your luck in finding someone who actually knew George Bennard was.  Even in his lifetime, he often joked about some of the ways he’d been introduced:  as the author of “The Old Gray Mare”; the author of “The Old Oaken Bucket”; the author of “Rock of Ages”; even as “the famous English philosopher George Bennard Shaw!”

Bennard retired to Reed City, MI, where he died on October 10, 1958.

The list of artists who have performed and recorded “The Old Rugged Cross” reads like a Who’s Who of country and gospel music:  Ernest Tubb, Al Green, Andy Griffin, Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Anne Murray, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Mahalia Jackson, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, George Jones, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, The Statler Brothers, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Ella Fitzgerald, John Prine, The Oak Ridge Boys, Brad Paisley, Eddy Arnold, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline. That’s just for starters.

For me, “The Old Rugged Cross” is a perfect example of an exceptionally well-written gospel song. With thoughtful, natural-sounding word setting, it tells a story simply, tunefully, movingly, and very, very beautifully.

United Methodist Hymnal #297
Words: Elizabeth C. Clephane, 1872
Music: ST. CHRISTOPHER Frederick C. Maker, 1881
Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

Never did I imagine, when I first heard “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” as a teenager, how many times I would sing it, play it, think about it, or hear it over and over again in my head.  Back then, I never thought I would one day want to know more about the people who made that hymn, to read about their “story,” only to end up with just a few sentences because so little of the story had been preserved.

So, I know almost nothing about Frederick Charles Maker, beyond what you’ll read here.  I know he was born in Bristol, England, on August 6, 1844, and died there on January 1, 1927.  I know he began his musical training as a choir boy at Bristol Cathedral. This led to further studies and an eventual career as a well-regarded organist and choir master in several “non-conformist” churches in the England of his day.  He spent all of his active life playing in mostly Methodist and Congregational churches throughout Bristol. His longest job was at the Redland Park Congregational Church, where he was organist from 1882 to 1910.  In addition to church jobs, he also conducted the Bristol Free Church Choir Association and accompanied the Bristol Festival Choir.  He was a visiting music professor at Clifton College, a boys school, for many years.  Four of his hymn settings, including the one he made for “Beneath the cross of Jesus,” appeared in the 1891 Bristol Tune Book.  In addition to hymn tunes, Maker also wrote anthems and the cantata Moses in the Bullrushes, which I confess I kind of would like to hear.

Of Maker’s thirty or so musical settings for hymns, only three are still widely sung a hundred years later:  MORECOMB (the beautiful setting most often used for “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart”); REST (known throughout most of the twentieth century as the setting for John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1872 poem “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”); and ST. CHRISTOPHER (Maker’s glorious setting for “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”).

We know even less about Elizabeth Clephane, one of the few women hymnwriters in Scotland. She was born in Edinburgh in 1830 but lived most of her life in the area of Abbotsford.  In 101 Hymn Stories (1982), Kenneth Osbeck writes that Clephane was a frail Presbyterian woman, who, despite her poor health, was known for her helpful, cheery nature.  She was one of three sisters who served the poor and needy of their community and gave to charity all that they did not require for their own daily needs.  Elizabeth was also a poet and had several of her works published in The Family Treasury, a Scottish Presbyterian magazine.  The majority of her work, however, was published anonymously in 1872, three years after her death in 1869 at the age of thirty-eight.  “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” is one of her posthumously published poems.  An even more famous hymn text—“There were ninety and nine that safely lay in the shelter of the fold”—is another. 

Oddly enough, one of the dialogue verses of the latter, usually omitted, seems especially relevant and apt to thoughts about “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” during the days and nights of Lent.

Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way that mark out the mountain track?

They were shed for one who had gone astray ere the Shepherd could bring him back.

Lord, whence are thy hands so rent and torn?

They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.

United Methodist Hymnal #287
Words: Charles Wesley, 1742
Music: SELENA Isaac B. Woodbury, 1850
Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

A few refresher facts about Charles Wesley. He was born—the 18th [!] child of Susanna and Samuel Wesley—on December 18, 1707. He graduated from Oxford in 1732 with a master’s degree in classical languages and literature and was ordained as an Anglican priest in September 1735. Subsequently, he helped his brother John in establishing the Methodist movement in England.  Beyond that, he became (only slightly arguably) the greatest hymnwriter who ever lived, a statement that is based not so much on the quantity of hymns he wrote (although he wrote over 6,500), as on the overall quality of those hymns. Finally, as much as he supported John Wesley’s work, he did not support a separation from the Church of England and died, a confirmed Anglican, on March 28, 1788.

The great hymn “O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done!” first appeared in 1742 in Charles Wesley’s Hymns and Sacred Poems. Four years earlier, he had experienced a conversion that renewed his strength and will to spread the gospel to ordinary people. A year later, in 1739, both he and John took to field preaching, influenced by George Whitfield, whose open-air preaching was reaching large numbers of miners. To give some context to what Charles did “in the field” and suggest how that work might have influenced his poetry, here are a few entries from his Journal for 1740: “I spoke words of comfort to many mourners”; “I prayed by the side of one at the point of death”; “I visited three murderers under sentence of death”; “I got some hours for visiting our numerous sick”; “For the sake of many poor soldiers present, I enlarged on the faithful saying that Jesus came into this world to save sinners”; “I hastened to the joyful funeral of our sister Hannah”; “I spent an hour with a spiritual Quaker and rejoiced to find we were both of the same religion”; “At Kingswood, as soon as I had named my text, ‘It is finished,’ the love of Christ crucified so constrained me, that I burst into tears and felt a strong sympathy with Him in his sufferings. In like manner, the whole congregation looked upon Him, whom they had pierced, and mourned.”

Born on October 23, 1819, in Beverly, MA, Isaac Baker Woodbury became interested in music early on and had learned to play the violin by the age of thirteen. He eventually moved to Boston and began studying, principally with Lowell Mason. In time, he acquired students of his own and played for and conducted choral groups. In 1849, he moved to New York, where he worked as a choirmaster and editor. He wrote teaching pieces, piano pieces, choral pieces, and several hymn tunes; but he was probably best known as the compiler of The Dulcimer: or The New York Collection of Sacred Music, a collection of many popular hymns “from the best foreign and American composers” that he published in 1850.  In that volume, he included his own “Selena” tune, as a setting for the hymn ‘Asleep in Jesus! Blessed sleep! From which none ever wakes to weep.’

After contracting tuberculosis, he traveled to the Mediterranean and Florida for health reasons. He passed away in Columbia, SC, just shy of his fortieth birthday, on October 26, 1858.

In addition to the original ‘Asleep in Jesus!’ text that Woodbury set, his “Selena” tune has also served as the setting for ‘Come, O thou traveler unknown’; ‘God of our fathers, known of old’; ‘Thou, O Jehovah, shalt endure’; and ‘The Lord my pasture shall prepare.’  For me, none of those texts pairings produces anything touching. But when the tune is combined with Wesley’s ‘O Love divine! What hast thou done!’ text? Well, then you have musical magic and a beautiful, deeply moving spiritual experience.

United Methodist Hymnal #295
Words: John Bowring, 1825
Music: RATHBUN Ithamar Conkey, 1849
Mar. 12, Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

As a hymn-writer, John Bowring (1792-1872) was remarkable—not for the quality or quantity of his hymns exactly, but for the fact that hymn-writing was more of an avocation for someone who, as a political economist, led what might be considered a “fabled” life that found him being, at one time or another, a Member of Parliament, Chairman of the London and Blackwall Railway, British Consul at Canton (Guangzhou, today), Governor of Hong Kong, and Commissioner to Italy. In his work as a political economist, Bowring has been described as a social progressive who advocated free trade, parliamentary reform, education for all, and prison reforms.

At an early age, he began to show a facility for learning languages that, as he grew older, became extraordinary. By his mid-30s, he had published several volumes of translations of Russian, Spanish, Dutch, Serbian, Polish, Hungarian, and Czech poetry.  Most of his own poems, written at the same period of his life, became hymn texts that appeared only in hymnals of the Unitarian Church, of which he was a lifelong member. Only three reached a wider audience by their inclusion in hymnals of other denominations: “God Is Love, His Mercy Brightens”; “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night”; and “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.”

In talking about what we know about hymnwriters—what we know about who wrote the words, and what we know about who wrote the music—there can hardly be a greater contrast than the one we see in this hymn.  I’ve included only the very smallest fraction of what the Wikipedia article has to say about John Bowring.  There’s tons more revealing information there, if you’re interested in reading it.  On the other hand, below is absolutely every single word—I’ve done some padding and there still aren’t even a hundred of them—I could find that tells about Ithamar Conkey, the composer of the music for “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.”

There’s food for thought here, maybe even a kind of very small parable.

Ithamar Conkey was born of Scottish ancestry on May 5, 1815, in Shutesbury, MA. He became a wool merchant and married Elizabeth Billings.  They had a daughter and two sons.  He became the organist at Central Baptist Church in Norwich CT.  After that, he went to New York City, where he served as bass soloist at Calvary Episcopal Church and Grace Church. Later he was the bass soloist and choir director at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, positions he held until his death. His famous hymn tune, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” was written in 1849.   He died on April 30, 1867 in Elizabeth, NJ.

United Methodist Hymnal #298
Words: Isaac Watts, 1707
Music: HAMBURG Lowell Mason, 1824
Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

Lowell Mason (1792-1872) wrote over 600 hymn tunes. Many came from someone else’s music (usually one of the European composers he admired), either as a straight-out arrangement of a borrowed tune (from Carl Gotthelf Gläser for “O, for a thousand tongues to sing,” for example) or as an adaptation of a borrowed tune (from George Frederick Händel for “Joy to the World,” for example). A smaller number were newly composed pieces that Mason wrote himself. Only a few of those—like “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”; “Nearer, My God, to Thee”; and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”—have stood the test of time.  Because of their quality and intrinsic beauty, they continue to be loved and sung today.

Mason, like so many other composers and performers, showed an early aptitude for music. But he also showed an aptitude for business. So he not only studied music in his youth, he worked at other jobs as well—first, in a dry goods store and, then, in a bank. Simultaneously, from the age of seventeen on, he held music leadership positions in local churches. In his twenties, he began envisioning and compiling a new type of hymnal, one that drew music for its hymns from European composers like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.  When he was thirty, the hymnal was finally published by the Händel and Haydn Society of Boston—anonymously, at first, because he didn’t want the bank to know of this interest of his.

In time, Mason became an important figure in the Boston musical scene—serving as president of the Händel and Haydn Society, teaching and advocating for music in the public schools, co-founding the Boston Academy of Music, and serving as music superintendent of the Boston School System.  His fame and standing only grew when he moved to New York, where, among his many other activities, he became the music director at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in its new building on 19th Street.

Most American music scholars today believe that Mason’s emphasis on European models (particularly European harmonic models) for American hymnody anesthetized and choked off the vibrant and flourishing participatory tradition of singing heard most notably in both the Northern and Southern shape note singing schools. Joel Cohen, Music Director Emeritus of the Boston Camerata, is one of them. Here is what he has to say about Mason’s legacy: “He spent his long career trying to ‘correct’ the vital American folk hymn tradition and replace it with something blander and worse. He was rewarded for his largely successful efforts with fame, fortune, and a place in all standard music history books, while true geniuses, like the anonymous harmonizer of ‘Midnight Cry’ [in William Walker’s A Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, 1835], lie in unmarked graves.”

I get completely Cohen’s point.  At the same time, I think Mason’s setting of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”—with its short, five-note melody and supporting harmonies—is apt and beautiful enough to make one forgive a fair number of his faults.

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was a theologian, minister, and logician.  He also wrote somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 hymn texts. He was not only a prolific hymn writer, he was an extremely gifted and popular one as well. People read what he wrote!  Before Watts, hymn texts had to be based on the Bible, particularly the Psalms. Watts led the charge to making a new kind of hymn poetry, with words that emphasized original songs of real Christian experience.  In music, Lowell Mason wanted to take something new and squeeze it back into something old; in poetry, Isaac Watts wanted to leave the old behind and reach out for and build something new.  The two men could not have been more different.

United Methodist Hymnal #294
Words: Isaac Watts, 1707
Music: MARTYRDOM Attr. to Hugh Wilson, 1827
Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

Hugh Wilson was born in Fenwick, Scotland, somewhere around 1766; he died in Duntocher in 1824. He learned shoemaking from his father and also studied music and mathematics. In time, he became a part-time teacher in his village. Around 1800, he moved to Pollokshaws to work in the cotton mills and later moved to Duntocher, where he became a draftsman in the local mill. As a hobby, he made sundials and composed hymn tunes. Wilson was also a member of the Secession Church (which had separated from the Church of Scotland) and served as the song leader in the church at Duntocher. He is thought to have composed a number of hymn tunes, but only two have survived owing to the fact that, shortly before his death, he gave instructions that his music manuscripts should be destroyed.

Robert Archibald Smith was born, fourteen years later, in November 1780.  He was the son of a silk-weaver and himself apprenticed in silk-weaving as a youth. Largely self-taught, by the age of ten he played the violin, cello, and flute and sang in a church choir. Later, he taught music in Paisley, Scotland; in 1807, he was appointed leader of psalmody in Paisley Abbey. In 1823, he was appointed musical conductor at St. George’s Church, Edinburgh. He published his church music in Sacred Harmony (1820, 1825) and compiled a six-volume collection of Scottish songs entitled The Scottish Minstrel (1820-1824).  He died in Edinburgh on January 3, 1829.

Several tunes have been used, at one time or another, as a setting for “Alas! and did my Savior bleed.” The one you can listen to here is called MARTYRDOM, and it has tenuous roots in a Scottish folk tune to which the ballad “Helen of Kirkconnel” is often sung.  I’ve written a little about Hugh Wilson and Robert Smith above because each has some claim to the MARTYRDOM tune. Wilson is, today, given credit for adapting the folk tune into a duple-meter (two beats per measure) hymn tune around 1800. In 1825, two years after Wilson’s death, Smith published a triple-meter version of MARTYRDOM in his Sacred Music for the Use of St. George’s, Edinburgh.  At some point, a legal dispute arose as to who was the actual composer of the tune. It was settled in Wilson’s favor, but Smith’s triple-meter version is the one most often printed and sung today.

This is one of Isaac Watts’ great, great hymns. But his character and gifts don’t just shine out through the hymns he wrote.  So here is my favorite non-hymn-related sequence of events in Isaac Watts’ life.

He grew up in a nonconformist household; his father was twice jailed for those views. Nonconformists were defined as “Protestants who did not conform to the governance and usages of the Church of England.”  The fact that Isaac was a nonconformist like his father was the sole reason he could not be admitted to or attend Oxford and Cambridge. At that time, those hallowed halls of learning were only open to certified Church of England lads. Nonconformists need not apply.  Isaac studied at the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington instead.

Later in life, Isaac wrote a textbook called Logick, or the Right Use of Reason in Enquiry After the Truth, With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. It was published when he was fifty and printed in twenty editions.  It became a standard text on logic at Harvard and Yale and…  you guessed it…Cambridge and Oxford as well!  On his death, Isaac Watts’ papers were given to Yale University, which nonconforming Puritans and Congregationalists had established forty-seven years earlier in 1701.

United Methodist Hymnal #289
Words: John Heermann, 1630; trans. by Robert S. Bridges, 1899
Music: HERZLIEBSTER JESU Johann Crüger, 1640
Hymn Introduction by Frank Glass

Johann Crüger was born on April 9, 1598, in Gross Breesen, on the border of Germany and Poland. He studied at schools in Guben, Sorau, and Breslau, as well as at the Jesuit College at Olmütz and the Poets’ School at Regensburg. In Regensburg, he received musical training under Paulus Homberger (a pupil of Giovanni Gabrieli).  In 1615, at the age of seventeen, he settled in Berlin, and worked there as a private tutor until 1622, except for a short residence at the University of Wittenberg in 1620.  From 1622 until his death, he was, simultaneously, the cantor and organist of the Nikolaikirche and a teacher at the Greyfriars Gymnasium. He died in Berlin on February 23, 1662.

Crüger wrote no hymn texts himself, but he was one of the most distinguished composers of his time. He was a friend of Paul Gerhardt—an especially gifted and popular hymn writer of the Lutheran Church—and wrote and harmonized melodies for many hymns by Gerhardt and others. In 1647, he edited the most widely used Lutheran hymnal of the 17th century: Praxis pietatis melica. He composed 71 chorales, of which 18 have been widely used in Evangelical Lutheran churches throughout the world.  Of his chorale tunes, the one most familiar to other Protestants would probably be the tune he wrote for “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Johann Heermann was born on October 11, 1585, in Rudna, Silesia. He was the fifth and only surviving child of his impoverished parents. From childhood on, he was plagued with severe illnesses that would follow him throughout his life.  Because of his poor health, his formal education was erratic. He was seventeen before he began to write poetry, while working for and with support and encouragement from the theologian Valerius Herberger.  In 1607, Heermann was finally able to matriculate at the University of Strasbourg but, one year later, an eye infection forced him to return home.  In 1611, at the age of twenty-six, he became a minister in the Lutheran church at Köben.  But in 1623, he fell ill once again and never completely recovered.  The effects of the Thirty Years’ War struck him personally soon afterwards. Between 1629 and 1634, Köben was plundered four times by pro-Catholic troops.  Each time, Heermann lost his possessions.  In 1634, illness prevented him from preaching altogether; and, on his doctor’s advice, he moved across the border to Leszno, Poland, where he died on February 17, 1647.

It’s almost impossible to believe that, amid such hardships, Heermann could have found the will or frame of mind to continue writing poetry; yet, he did.  He had started out, in 1609, writing poetry in Latin, based on passages from the Gospels; but, by 1616, he was writing poetry in German as well. His later poems were influenced by works of devotional literature, which were themselves often influenced by pre-Reformation texts.  He is now considered to have been the best hymn writer of the period between Martin Luther and Paul Gerhardt, marking a transition from the objective hymns of the Reformation to the more subjective hymns of the seventeenth century.  In regard to his poetry, James Mearns wrote (in John Julian’s 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology) that “Johann Heermann was well grounded in the school of affliction, and in his House and Heart Music, some of his finest hymns are in the section entitled “’Songs of Tears.’” Many consider Devoti musica cordis, or “Music for a Devout Heart” (from 1630) to be Johann Heermann’s most influential work.

“Ah, Holy Jesus”—both words and music—comes from the period of the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, over the course of which an estimated 4.5 to 8 million people died, mostly from disease and starvation.