STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS

Lewis Benson

MY FAITH LOOKS UP TO THEE

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1 My faith looks up to Thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary,
   Savior Divine:
Now hear me while I pray,
Take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day
   Be wholly Thine.
2 May Thy rich grace impart
Strength to my fainting heart,
   My zeal inspire;
As Thou hast died for me,
O may my love to Thee
Pure, warm, and changeless be,
   A living fire.
3 While life’s dark maze I tread,
And griefs around me spread,
   Be Thou my Guide;
Bid darkness turn to day,
Wipe sorrow’s tears away,
Nor let me ever stray
   From Thee aside.
4 When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold, sullen stream
   Shall o’er me roll,
Blest Savior, then, in love,
Fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above,
   A ransomed soul.

Ray Palmer, 1830

NOTE– The text is taken from his Hymns and Sacred Pieces, 1865. As regards a different reading in the original printing of the hymn, see under “Some Points for Discussion,”

THE STORY OF THE HYMN

“Look in thy heart, and write,” said the muse to Sir Philip Sidney: and no language could reveal more clearly the source of this hymn. Its words “were born of my own soul,” the author said long afterward to Dr. Cuyler. It becomes at once evident, therefore, that we must be altogether dependent upon such disclosures as the author chose to make for any real knowledge of the origin of the hymn. Happily for us the publication of inaccurate and apocryphal accounts of the matter (already alluded to in the preface to this book), together with a wish to escape from “the necessity of replying to letters of inquiry which have been received in inconvenient numbers,” led Dr. Palmer (in an appendix to his Poetical Works, 1876) to narrate the circumstances and experience out of which the hymn arose:

“Immediately after graduating at Yale College, in September, 1830, the writer went to the city of New York, by previous engagement, to spend a year in teaching for two or three hours each day in a select school for young ladies. This private institution, which was patronized by the best class of families, was under the direction of an excellent Christian lady connected with St. George’s Church, the rector of which was then the good Dr. James Milnor. It was in Fulton Street, west of Broadway, and a little below Church Street on the south side of the way. That whole section of the city, now covered with immense stores and crowded with business, was then occupied by genteel residences. The writer resided in the family of the lady who kept the school, and it was there that the hymn was written.

An Autograph Verse
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“It had no external occasion whatever. Having been accustomed almost from childhood, through an inherited propensity perhaps, to the occasional expression of what his heart felt in the form of verse, it was in accordance with this habit, and in an hour when Christ, in the riches of His grace and love, was so vividly apprehended as to fill the soul with deep emotion, that the piece was composed. There was not the slightest thought of writing for another eye, least of all of writing a hymn for Christian worship. Away from outward excitement, in the quiet of his chamber, and with a deep consciousness of his own needs, the writer transferred as faithfully as he could to paper what at the time was passing within him. Six stanzas were composed, and imperfectly written, first on a loose sheet, and then accurately copied into a small morocco-covered book, which for such purposes the author was accustomed to carry in his pocket. This first complete copy is still – 1875 – preserved. It is well remembered that when writing the last line, ‘A ransomed soul,’ the thought that the whole work of redemption and salvation was involved in those words, and suggested the theme of eternal praises, moved the writer to a degree of emotion that brought abundant tears.

“A year or two after the hymn was written, and when no one, so far as can be recollected, had ever seen it, Dr. Lowell Mason met the author in the street in Boston, and requested him to furnish some hymns for a Hymn and Tune Book which, in connection with Dr. Hastings of New York, he was about to publish. The little book containing it was shown him, and he asked a copy. We stepped into a store together, and a copy was made and given him, which without much notice he put in his pocket. On sitting down at home and looking it over, he became so much interested in it that he wrote for it the tune ‘Olivet,’ in which it has almost universally been sung. Two or three days afterward we met again in the street, when, scarcely waiting to salute the writer, he earnestly exclaimed, ‘Mr. Palmer, you may live many years and do many good things, but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author of “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”’”

The hymn and tune book referred to by Dr. Palmer, in which the hymn first appeared, came out in twelve parts in 1831-32, and was called Spiritual Songs for Social Worship. Numerous editions of the book were printed; before long the hymn and its tune became widely sung and began to be copied into other books. In 1842 it was introduced into England through the Rev. Andrew Reed’s Hymn Book. The hymn is today among those most familiar in evangelical churches of both countries. The statement often made that it now appears in every hymn book is, of course, not true. That is not true of any hymn. But it is as well known and as well loved as any American hymn. It seems to many people like a part of their own spiritual life.

The best service performed by this euphonious patron lay in the fact that his letter brought the hymn to the attention of Miss Mary W. Howard, of Savannah, Georgia. She saw the possibilities of Bishop Heber’s hymn, but knew of no suitable tune that would carry the words, written as they were in a metre not then much used in hymns. Lowell Mason was at the time a bank clerk in the same town; but he had already begun the musical career which was to bring him fame and do so much for congregational singing. Boston was destined to be the scene of his more conspicuous labors, but already in Savannah he was teaching a singing-school and leading a choir, and the year before he had published the pioneer of his long line of tune books. To him Miss Howard brought the words of this hymn, and he wrote for it his now famous tune, Missionary Hymn, and printed it as sheet music, with the legend, “Composed for and Dedicated to Miss Mary W. Howard, of Savannah, Georgia.” The effect of Mason’s tune has been to make “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” the inevitable hymn for all missionary occasions in this country; and in England, even to this day, the tune is frequently heard in churches where music of the severer type known as Anglican has come to prevail.

THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN

Ray Palmer was the son of the Hon. Thomas Palmer of Little Compton, Rhode Island, and was born at that place on November 12th, 1808. In his thirteenth year he became clerk in a dry-goods store at Boston, and while there he connected himself with the Park Street Church. His thoughts turned toward the ministry, and he spent three years preparing for college at Phillips Academy, Andover, and in 1830 was graduated from Yale. Then came the years of teaching and of preparation for the ministry, first at New York and afterward at New Haven. He was ordained in 1835, becoming pastor of the Central Congregational Church of Bath, Maine, where he remained until 1850. From then until 1866 he was pastor of the First Congregational Church of Albany, New York. In 1866 he became the Corresponding Secretary of the American Congregational Union, removing to New York City, and holding that laborious post until 1878. He resigned his secretaryship in that year and had already removed to Newark, New Jersey.

The real occasion of this resignation was the failure of Dr. Palmer’s health. He suffered from a nervous affection causing an uncertainty, at times even a stagger, in his walk. But for some years after giving up his work in New York he continued in active service in connection with the Belleville Avenue Congregational Church, of Newark. By a unique arrangement Dr. Palmer became its “pastor,” having especial charge of visiting the people; while Dr. George H. Hepworth was its “preacher,” and Dr. William Hayes Ward its “superintendent of mission work.” At Newark, in 1882, Dr. Palmer gathered about him a distinguished and affectionate company to celebrate the golden anniversary of his wedding to Miss Ann M. Ward, of New York. But the warning of his approaching end soon followed. He died at Newark on March 29th, 1887.

Dr. Ray Palmer
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Dr. Palmer was the author of a number of books. His prose writings were generally of a devotional character, but included Hints on the Formation of Religious Opinions (1860), of which several editions were printed. His hymns and other verse appeared in successive volumes: Hymns and Sacred Pieces (1865), Hymns of My Holy Hours (1868), Home, or the Unlost Paradise (1868), Complete Poetical Works (1876), and Voices of Hope and Gladness (1881). Dr. Palmer’s poetical work was voluminous enough to fill an 8vo volume of more than three hundred and fifty pages. It is always pure and often graceful, and written in easily flowing verse, but the body of his miscellaneous poetry does not attain such elevation of thought or distinction of form as would recommend it to the student of literature.

In estimating his poetry it is only fair to remember that Dr. Palmer’s life “for more than forty years was unremittingly devoted to the absorbing duties of a Christian minister, and for more than three-fourths of this period to the manifold labors of a city Pastor. Poetry, instead of filling any prominent place in the program of his life, has been only the occupation of the few occasional moments that could be redeemed from severer, and generally very prosaic, forms of work.”

When we turn from the miscellaneous poetry to the hymns, we have a different situation and a happier result. There was nothing in Dr. Palmer’s circumstances to interfere with the production of hymns. They were quite in line with his thought and work. And the hymn-form furnished precisely the medium through which his purely devotional spirit and gift for graceful verse could find their most spontaneous expression. It is among the hymn writers that Dr. Palmer finds his proper place, and by many he is considered to be the foremost hymn writer of America. He is distinguished not only for the excellence of his best hymns, but for the number of his hymns that are in all ways good. And to them must he added his translations of Latin hymns, in which he was especially successful. Several of his hymns are favorites; and yet what Lowell Mason prophesied has come to pass, and Dr. Palmer is best known as the author of “My Faith Looks up to Thee.”

Dr. Palmer’s character corresponded to his hymns. One who knew him well has recently spoken of him to the present writer as “One of the loveliest of men. He was exceedingly agreeable in conversation, which had always a spiritual tone,” the same friend went on to say. “There was a certain saintliness in his manner and personality. He was gentle in his ways of speech, but had very deep feelings, which often came to the surface in conversation. His religious character was never better illustrated than when he was drawn out to speak of his famous hymn: the usual egotism of an author was so overcome by a feeling of simple gratitude for what the hymn had accomplished.”

Dr. Palmer’s portrait illustrates the description of his personal appearance given by his friend Dr. Theodore Cuyler (in Recollections of a Long Life): “He was short in stature, but his erect form and habit of brushing his hair high over his forehead gave him a commanding look. He was the impersonation of genuine enthusiasm.”

SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) In the story of the hymn the point that appeals to the imagination is the carrying for so long in the young man’s pocket of that single copy, unknown, unread, of the hymn now so familiar. Almost as appealing is the record of another copy of the hymn that came to Dr. Palmer’s knowledge. It was made in camp the evening before one of the great battles of the Civil War. Six or eight young Christian soldiers had met for prayer in one of the tents. They could not all expect to survive the battle. One suggested that they draw up a paper expressive of the spirit in which they faced death, and that all sign it for a testimony to the friends of such as should fall. Talking over the form of the paper, it was agreed that the hymn “My Faith Looks up to Thee” be written out in full; and to this each one of them signed his name. What caused this particular hymn to be chosen for such a purpose? And just what message did that paper bring to the relatives of those that fell in battle the next day?

(2) Dr. Palmer explained the success of his hymn by saying that it embodied “in appropriate and simple language that which is most central in all true Christian experience – the act of faith in the divine Redeemer – the intrusting of the individual soul to Him entirely and forever.” But this explanation would apply just as well to a prose statement as to a hymn. Must there not be poetic feeling as well as spiritual truth in a good hymn? What are the special poetic merits of this hymn?

(3) The hymn has seldom suffered from alterations at the hands of editors. Dr. Palmer complained of a compiler who substituted “distress ” for “distrust,” in the last verse. He much preferred “distrust,” as applying more to the soul, to “distress,” as suggesting bodily sensations. But what he seems to have forgotten is that the word was originally printed “distress” when the hymn first appeared in Dr. Mason’s hymn book; being changed to “distrust” only in the later editions. It would be interesting to examine the small morocco- covered book to see what word was originally written. But is there any question that Dr. Palmer was right in insisting on “distrust ”? Notice his choice of words throughout. Could the hymn be improved by substituting others at any point?