STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS

Lewis Benson

HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION, YE SAINTS OF THE LORD

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1 How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,–
You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?
2 Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed;
I, I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
3 When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
4 When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
5 E’en down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.
6 The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake.

“K –” in Rippon’s “Selection of Hymns,”; 1787

NOTE– Six verses out of seven; the text being taken from Dr. Rippon’s book.

THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN

Outside of the great hymn writers, few names are more familiar to a student of hymns than that of Dr. John Rippon. He was pastor, from 1773 to 1836, of a Particular Baptist church in London. He had great reputation and influence both as man and as pastor; but of all the things he accomplished, the one best remembered is the hymn book he edited. He and his people were alike devoted to singing the psalms and hymns of Dr. Watts. Neither had any wish to supersede them, but Dr. Rippon had come to feel that hymns were needed on some subjects and occasions omitted by Dr. Watts. And hence he was led to publish, in the year 1787, a hymn book with this title: “A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors, Intended to be an Appendix to Dr. Watts’ Psalms and Hymns. By John Rippon, A. M.”

It was a book of great merit, and was used widely and for long, many editions being printed in England and this country; and Dr. Rippon is reputed to have accumulated a comfortable estate from his profits on the publication. The copy of the first edition in the possession of the present writer is graced by Dr. Rippon’s portrait. But as this copy is in special binding, he ventures to hope that it is one of a few prepared for personal friends, and that copies intended for use in worship were not so embellished. In any event Dr. Rippon must be credited with the very great services he rendered to hymnody. The remarkable feature of the book, which has given it permanent fame, is the great number of original hymns secured by him and there first printed. Many of these have been in use ever since.

From this copy of Dr. Rippon’s book the photographer has reproduced for us, even to the light color of the ink, the page containing the most famous of these hymns. Looking upon the facsimile, we have before us the original text of “How Firm a Foundation,” from the motto at the top to the editor’s note at the bottom, with all the quaint capitalization, just as their eyes saw it who first found inspiration in singing it so long ago.

Frontispiece to “Rippon’s Selection”
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The facsimile gives us not only the text, but all that is actually known of the authorship of the hymn. Dr. Rippon’s habit was to print the author’s name above a hymn. This hymn is one of three to which the only signature is the letter “K” followed by a dash. The other two, beginning, “In songs of sublime adoration and praise,” and “The Bible is justly esteemed,” do not arouse much interest. But the authorship of this one seems to have been discussed from the first, and ever since has excited much curiosity and speculation. Such a problem has its own fascination. One cannot but think of the unknown writer, all unconscious that by signing his name to the hymn he would have won immortality, and of the other people who knew the secret, but are not here to answer our questions.

Naturally we turn to Dr. Rippon’s preface, first of all, to see if it throws any light upon the matter. After speaking of distinguished men who have contributed hymns, he adds: “In most Places, where the Names of the Authors were known, they are put at full Length, but the Hymns which are not so distinguished, or which have only a single letter prefixed to them, were, many of them, composed by a Person unknown, or else have undergone some Considerable Alterations.” What Dr. Rippon has in mind to say here is that many of the unsigned hymns were composed or recast by himself (the “Person unknown”), and that generally (but not always) he has given the author’s name in full when he knew it. That is all, and it throws no light here.

Facsimile of the First Printing of the Hymn
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As long as Dr. Rippon lived to reprint his book, the signature to this hymn remained unchanged. After his death, and when the book had passed from the control of his representatives, an enlarged edition appeared, in which “K” is changed to “KIRKHAM.” Who made the change, and for what reason, cannot now be known. Very likely it was based merely on hearsay. Certainly the new editor did not know who wrote the two other hymns originally ascribed to “K,” for they are left anonymous, even that letter being dropped. The ascriptions of authorship in this edition are so careless and full of errors as to carry little weight. In 1788 Thomas Kirkham published a collection of hymns, but those who have examined it say that this hymn is not among them. And there is no evidence that it was written by any one of the name of Kirkham.

Another solution of the puzzle was offered by Daniel Sedgwick. He was a second-hand bookseller of London, who collected hymn books and studied English hymns until he knew more of their history than any one else of his time. He suggested that “K” was probably put for Keith, meaning George Keith, a London bookseller, son-in-law of the famous Dr. Gill, and who was said to compose hymns based on his father-in-law’s sermons. Dr. Julian, who examined Mr. Sedgwick’s papers after his death, reports that his guess was based on nothing more substantial than a statement of an old woman whom Sedgwick met in an almshouse. But his name carried a certain authority, and his guess grew into a tradition. Many hymn books, even to the present time, ascribe the hymn to George Keith, sometimes with, and sometimes without, a mark of interrogation.

So the matter rested until taken up by a well-known editor of Boston, Mr. H. L. Hastings, who successfully solved the problem of the authorship of another hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Mr. Hastings published the account of his investigations in his paper, The Christian, for May, 1887, and it will be best to have the story in his own words:

“In preparing hymns and music for Songs of Pilgrimage, we were led to go over not only Dr. Rippon’s hymn book but also his Tune Book, edited by Thomas Walker, who for a time led the singing in Dr. Rippon’s church. We noticed that over the hymn in question was placed the name of a tune to which it was to be sung, which was Geard. On looking up that tune in the book, we found it was composed by R. Keene. There being but two tunes of that metre in the entire book, the thought arose, was the ‘K’ of the hymn the same person as the ‘R. Keene,’ to whose tune it was to be sung? Examining both hymn and tune, they seemed to be made for each other, and the evidence seemed to point to R. Keene as the author of the hymn; and we accordingly inserted it in Songs of Pilgrimage, with the original tune, and placed under it the name of R. Keene, with a query (?) to indicate uncertainty as to its origin.

“Visiting London, near the close of 1886, we called upon the venerable Charles Gordelier, and asked him, Who wrote ‘How Firm a Foundation’? He gave the names Kirkham, Keith, and Keene, but could give no definite reason for preferring one to another, until we laid the facts before him. Turning to Keene’s tune, Geard, which he had copied into a book, he at once recognized it as the tune to which, fifty years before, they were accustomed to sing that hymn, and he also remembered that its author, R. Keene, was once a leader of the singing in Dr. Rippon’s church, and that the hymn in question was said to have been written by a precentor in Dr. Rippon’s church. After considerable thought, he recalled that half a century before, when he himself led the singing in the Baptist church, and used to meet with the different precentors from other meetings, he had heard the authorship of that hymn attributed to Keene, and he finally remembered that an aged woman named Edgehill, a member of Dr. Rippon’s church, and the wife of a bookseller in Brick Lane, had told him that Keene was the author of that hymn.

“There might be various reasons why a musician and choir master might put his name to a tune which he composed, while modesty, or other considerations, might cause him to append only his initial to a new hymn; and, in view of all the facts, we think we may consider the question settled, and definitely assign the authorship of the hymn to R. Keene, a precentor in Dr. Rippon’s church, and the author of the tune Geard, to which it was sung.”

Such was Mr. Hastings’ conclusion, which for some reason has not attracted much attention; but it has had a striking confirmation at the hands of another investigator. In preparing a notice of this hymn for his Dictionary of Hymnology, Dr. John Julian found that in Dr. Fletcher’s Baptist Collection of 1822 the “K –” of Rippon was extended to “Kn,” and in his edition of 1835, still further, to “Keen,” while in the preface Dr. Fletcher stated that he was greatly assisted by Thomas Walker, and acknowledged his extensive acquaintance with sacred poetry. Now, this Thomas Walker was Dr. Rippon’s precentor and the editor of his Tune Book, in which Geard appears. Taking this association into account, Dr. Julian argues that Dr. Walker based his ascription of authorship upon actual knowledge of the facts, and that “we are justified in concluding that the ascription to this hymn must be that of an unknown person of the name of Keen.”

We have, then, a result practically the same from two independent investigations carried on in each case without knowledge of the other, and the reasonableness of such conclusion seems greatly strengthened by the coincidence. Mr. Hastings goes a step beyond Dr. Julian in Fixing the identity of Keene. The present writer would add further particulars if he could. In the letters of the Rev. George Whitefield are many references to a Robert Keene, woolen draper in the Minories, London, who was Whitefield’s faithful friend, a trustee of his Tabernacle, and who lived until 1793. But there seems to be nothing that would associate him with Dr. Rippon’s Baptist hymn book.

THE STORY OF THE HYMN

The hymn seems to have come into immediate use upon its appearance in Dr. Rippon’s book. Copies of the book were brought over to this country, and in 1790 this hymn was put into the hymn book of the Philadelphia Baptist Association. In 1792, only five years after its original publication, the whole book was reprinted in New York, so that the hymn began its career here almost as soon as in England, and for some reason it has won a more lasting popularity here than there. So familiar is the hymn to us, we imagine it to be a standard wherever English hymns are sung. But such is not the fact. It never gained a foothold within the Church of England. It is not sung by the Wesleyans or Presbyterians of Great Britain, and but little by the Congregationalists. Dr. Horder, the best known hymnologist among the latter, speaks of it in his Hymn Lover as a hymn of no great merit. Its use, over there, is mostly among Baptists.

In this country, on the other hand, few hymns have been sung more generally or more enthusiastically. It has a part in the history of our common Christianity. Very likely the stirring tune to which it has for so long been sung throughout the United States is partly responsible for this popularity. That tune does not rightly belong to these words, and, as in the case of the hymn, its origin has never been certainly established. The statement of so many books that it was composed by John Reading rests on no real foundation. The familiar name, “Portuguese Hymn,” is an error started by one who heard it in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London, and hastily assumed it to be a Portuguese melody. All that is actually known of the tune is that it was the music to a Latin Christmas hymn (“Adeste Fideles”), sung in Roman Catholic chapels throughout England as early as the middle of the eighteenth century. Our well-known “O Come, All Ye Faithful” (The Hymnal, No. 170), is a translation of the hymn to which the tune rightly belongs.

The position which the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” thus mated to the Christmas tune, has taken among us was strikingly illustrated in the late Spanish War. The incident is related in The Sunday-School Times for December 7th, 1901, by Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis Guild, Jr., late Inspector-General of the Seventh Army Corps. The corps was encamped along the hills at Quemados, near Havana, Cuba. On Christmas eve of 1898 Colonel Guild sat before his tent in the balmy tropical night, chatting with a fellow-officer of Christmas and home. Suddenly from the camp of the Forty-ninth Iowa rang a sentinel’s call, “Number ten; twelve o’clock, and all’s well!”

“It was Christmas morning. Scarcely had the cry of the sentinel died away, when from the bandsmen’s tents of that same regiment there rose the music of an old, familiar hymn, and one clear baritone voice led the chorus that quickly ran along those moonlit fields: ‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord!’ Another voice joined in, and another, and another, and in a moment the whole regiment was singing, and then the Sixth Missouri joined in, with the Fourth Virginia, and all the rest, till there, on the long ridges above the great city whence Spanish tyranny once went forth to enslave the New World, a whole American army corps was singing: –

    “‘Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed;
    I, I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
    I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
    Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.’

“The Northern soldier knew the hymn as one he had learned beside his mother’s knee. To the Southern soldier it was that and something more; it was the favorite hymn of General Robert E. Lee, and was sung at that great commander’s funeral.

“Protestant and Catholic, South and North, singing together on Christmas day in the morning,– that’s an American army!”

And if any one has felt a sense of impropriety in divorcing the old Christmas music from its proper words, surely he may feel that it came to its own again that morning. Such an incident, and what it implies, inclines one rather to the hope that “How Firm a Foundation” may never cease to be sung among us, and that it may never be set to any other tune.

SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) Was Mr. Hastings justified in saying that the question of authorship is now settled in favor of R. Keene?

(2) The literary method of this hymn is peculiar, and more like that of a homily than of a song. The singer addresses his fellow-saints with an assertion that a solid foundation for their confident faith is laid in Scripture. This he emphasizes by the rhetorical question, Could God have promised more? The balance of the hymn is simply the citation of his proof-texts. Can you trace in the Scriptures these “precious promises” that are quoted in the hymn?

(3) The last line brings out the impressive repetition of negatives in Hebrews 13:5 (“I will in no wise let thee go; no, nor will I forsake thee”). In the minds of many clergymen who are graduates of Princeton Seminary, this line is inevitably associated with an incident of the last years of its much-beloved theological professor, Dr. Charles Hodge. The tradition still lingers there that one evening, in conducting prayers in the Oratory, the venerable man, in reading this hymn, which he had announced to be sung, was so overcome by his emotions that on reaching the last line he could only indicate by gestures, keeping time with the rhythm of the words, his own appropriation of God’s assurance that He would never, no, never, no, never forsake the soul that hath leaned on Christ.

The foot-note to this last line of the hymn when it originally appeared in Rippon’s Selection – “agreeable to Dr. Doddridge’s Translation of Heb. 12:5” (see the facsimile) – was one that at the time required no explanation. The allusion is to the paraphrase of that verse as given in The Family Expositor; or a Paraphrase and Version of the New Testament, with Critical Notes and Practical Improvements, by the famous Dr. Philip Doddridge. This book had won enthusiastic praise not only from nonconformists, but from divines and scholars of the Church of England, and had already become one of the familiar household books of the period. The verse in question there reads: “I will not, I will not leave thee, I will never, never, never forsake thee.” It will be noticed that the author of the hymn has not only reproduced in the last line the tripled “never” of Dr. Doddridge’s version, but also, in the line immediately preceding, its repetition of the “I will not.”