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Life in Community

The Power of a Good Hymn: What a Friend We Have in Jesus

August 21, 2019 by

One task I enjoyed a few years back was teaching a Christian history course for some homeschoolers in our community. History is all about people. I love people, and found it fascinating to study and teach about some who left their mark on history.

At one point, we covered some prolific hymn writers such as Isaac Watts (1674–1748) and Charles Wesley (1707–1788). Intrigued by the inspirational power of song, I found their life stories especially interesting.

 

As a teenager, Isaac Watts told his father that the hymns their church sang were much too boring. Predictably, his father challenged him to write something better. Instead of going to his room to sulk, Watts spent the rest of his life responding to his father’s challenge.

Over the years, Watts penned more than seven hundred hymns, including “Joy to the World” and “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need.” We often sing these songs in our community, and I wonder how many millions of other people they have uplifted over the centuries.

Charles Wesley was even more prolific than Watts. In an effort to support the preaching of his brother John, he wrote almost nine thousand hymns, including “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” and “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” Wesley’s early Methodists lived and sang with enthusiasm. Some historians believe that the movement of heart sparked by the meetings and hymns of the Wesley brothers had such an impact on England that the violent, anti-church anger of the French Revolution could not find a foothold in the United Kingdom. Talk about songs affecting history!

Every movement needs inspired music flowing through its veins – and that takes some work. Eberhard Arnold, a founder of the Bruderhof, wrote that:

[I]t is invaluable that various ones among us find new songs … from all centuries, old in their origin perhaps, but new to us. In the same way, songs composed among us or new tunes written to poems are a great gift to our circle.… We need to continually enlarge our store of songs if we do not want any of them to become distorted or worn out.

The Salvation Army’s William Booth once said that if secular music belongs to the devil, “I would plunder him for it, for he has no right to a single note of the whole seven. Every note, and every strain, and every harmony is divine, and belongs to us.”

Watts must have felt the same. Many of his songs were set to existing popular tunes. His lyrics were such freely paraphrased versions of David’s psalms that critics called them “Watts’s whims” instead of “Watts’s hymns.” Nevertheless, his efforts stood the test of time.

I wonder how many songs that are popular today (whether in churches or at music festivals) will be inspiring people two hundred years from now.

In addition to spanning the centuries, a good hymn can bridge cultures. The song “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” (attributed to Indian holy man Sadhu Sundar Singh) is an example. A hundred years after its composition, my wife and I were sitting in the Aussie bush sharing a meal with friends who were recent Sudanese refugees. We asked if they could sing us something in their native tongue. When we heard them belting out this old favorite, we joined in, alternating verses in English and Dinka. It was a moving and joyfully uniting experience.

A good hymn can bridge centuries and cultures.

On another occasion, some members of my family were trading tunes with an Aboriginal elder who pastors a small congregation in our area. At one point, he began to strum his guitar and sing deeply from his heart “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” We joined in with some vocal harmonies and a fiddle break. Whatever barriers history has built between our peoples, sharing a heartfelt song like this helps to remove them.

Unfortunately, the moments described above were “recorded” only by the memories of each of us who were there. To give you a sense of what the music actually sounded like, here is a rendition of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” recorded by my son Geordie and his wife, Dorie, on their honeymoon some years ago.

Hang in there for the fiddle break at the end! Most Sunday worship services I go to do not include instrumental breaks during hymns, but in an informal setting, it is a great way to think a bit longer about the words you have just been singing together. Enjoy.


Joe McKernan lives with his wife, Nancy, at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales, Australia.

Listen to more Songs of the Month here.

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  • From the heart, thanks!

    James Isenberg
  • Truly excellent thank you so much!

    MarkAnderson