A few weeks ago I was watching, I think, ‘Songs of Praise’ and the hymn “O Jesus, I have promised” was introduced as a hymn that has retained its popularity over many years. This prompted me to research the writer of the hymn and see if there was an interesting story behind the hymn. You may recall the devotion I wrote in April about Horatio Spafford who wrote the hymn “It is well with my soul” after losing his four daughters when their ship sank in the Atlantic Ocean. As you will see there was no dramatic story behind the hymn but my research led me in a number of different directions and wherever I looked the dominant theme that emerged was ‘Longevity’.
The writer of “O Jesus I have promised” was John Ernest Bode (1816-1874). He was educated at Eton and the Charterhouse before going up to Christ Church, Oxford where he obtained a B.A. in 1837 and an M.A. in 1840. He became a student and a tutor at his college (1841-47) during which time he was ordained deacon in 1841, and as a minister in 1843. In 1847 he became Rector of Westwell, Oxfordshire where he remained until becoming Rector of Castle Camps, Cambridgeshire. He was an accomplished poet and stood for the chair of poetry at Oxford in 1857 but lost out to Matthew Arnold.
John Bode wrote this hymn in 1866 for the confirmation of his daughter and two sons in the Church of England and on that occasion the first line was “O Jesus we have promised”. He told his children, “I have written a hymn containing all the important truths I want you to remember”, and it is one of the most enduring hymns of Christian discipleship. It was so popular that Bishops in the Church of England were weary of singing it and discouraged its use at confirmations. So, the first example of longevity lies in the fact that this hymn written 154 years ago is still regularly sung today.
In 1855 John Bode was invited to deliver the prestigious Bampton Lectures at Oxford University and this led me to research the Bampton Lectures. John Bampton (1690-1751) achieved an M.A. at Trinity College, Oxford in 1712 and became rector of Stratford Tony in Wiltshire and later a canon of Salisbury cathedral. In his will Bampton directed that eight lectures be delivered annually at Oxford in the University church on eight Sundays “between the commencement of the last month in Lent term and the end of the third week in Act term”. The lectures to be on a choice of specified theological subjects and those invited to deliver the lectures had to be no less than a Master of Arts at Oxford or Cambridge. The first of the Bampton Lectures was delivered in 1780 and the tradition continues to this day, although the lectures have been biennial since 1901. Our second example of longevity is the fact that the Bampton Lectures are still being delivered 240 years after they were instigated.
Now we move to another hymn writer Emily Huntington Miller (1833-1913) who was born in Brooklyn, Connecticut, daughter of a Methodist pastor, Thomas Huntington. She is described as an author, poet and educator and her published literary work attracted a wide circle of readers. Over 100 of her poems were set to music and one of her hymns was ‘I love to hear the story’:
|To sing his love and mercy|
My sweetest songs I’ll raise;
For though I cannot see him,
I know he hears my praise;
And mine his loving promise
That even I may go
To sing among the angels,
Because he loves me so.
|I‘m glad my blessed Saviour|
Was once a child like me,
To show how pure and holy
His little ones might be;
And if I try to follow
His footsteps here below,
He never will forsake me
Because he loves me so.
|I love to hear the story|
Which angel voices tell,
How once the King of Glory
Came down on earth to dwell;
I am both weak and sinful,
But this I surely know:
The Lord came down to save me
Because he loved me so.
I know what you’re thinking – what has this got to do with John Bode and his hymn? Well, ‘Angel’s Story’, the tune composed for ‘I love to hear the story’ was the tune John Bode used for “O Jesus I have promised”.
Now we return to these shores. The composer of the tune ‘Angel’s Story’ was Arthur Henry “Daddy” Mann who was the organist and director of music at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge from 1876 to 1929. Arthur Mann gained his Bachelor of Music and Doctor of Music degrees at Oxford University and, after short spells as organist at Wolverhampton, Tettenhall and Beverley Minster moved to his post at King’s College. During his time at Cambridge Arthur Mann established the first choir school with boarding choristers and also in 1918 founded the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. More examples here of longevity: Arthur Mann was for 53 years director of music at King’s College during which time he founded the choir school and, at the age of 68 when many would be retiring he established the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols – both the school and the Nine Lessons and Carols continue to this day.
This set me thinking about longevity and the way it is perceived. We celebrate when someone we know reaches their 100th birthday simply because they have lived a lot longer than most other people and irrespective of whether they have achieved anything significant.
So, what is significant about the examples of longevity that I have discovered in my research. It is the continued repeating of the gospel message that these actions have brought about. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 “…so that by all possible means I might save some. I do this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings”
Here are the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28-30: 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The message is that the Gospel is easy to understand and is not burdensome.
I believe that Christian poetry and prose that has endured for many years has lasted because it has kept the Gospel message simple. When Jesus taught he used parables based on everyday things that everyone could understand: the Good Shepherd, the good Samaritan, the prodigal son, the sower of the seed, the lost sheep, the houses built on the rock and the sand etc. We remember things we understand. We remember the words of Augustine (born AD 354) because his teaching, while profound, was easily understandable. Matthew Henry’s approach to teaching was “Choose for your pulpit subjects the plainest, and most needful truths; and endeavour to make them plainer.” Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham, amongst others, all brought the Gospel to the people in plain, simple and understandable terms and are still quoted many years later. The hymns written by, for example, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Newton, William Cowper and, more recently, Graham Kendrick, Stuart Townend, Matt Redman, Darlene Zschech and Keith & Kristyn Getty have retained their popularity because they present the Gospel with rhymes that are easy to remember and, often, with tunes we love to sing. Two wonderful examples:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Isaac Watts (1707)
|In Christ alone my hope is found,|
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
Stuart Townend and Keith Getty (2001)
Some of the examples of writers of prose and poetry have achieved longevity of ten, twenty, one hundred, five hundred and even one thousand eight hundred and fifty years (Augustine) and their presentation of the Gospel has brought many to the Lord. In these Covid-19 times people need hope – the hope that the Gospel brings for eternity. As we approach Christmas please remember that a few words about the Gospel, simply put, can bring a friend or relative to the Lord. We may not have our words remembered in ten or a hundred years’ time but the effect on the person you spoke them to can last for eternity.
ETERNITY IS THE ULTIMATE LONGEVITY.
I wish you the peace and joy of Christmas.