Hymns and biography

Whenever we write, whatever we write, we are influenced by our experience. We may choose to try to deny that influence, or to use it. Traditionally those who rely heavily on scripture to inspire their writing are least likely to bring their own biography into play. Others allow that biography to be the starting point for their writing. The distinction is not always obvious. Charlotte Elliott wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea’. It reads like a straightforward expression of dedication, of commitment until, that is, we reach the third stanza:

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come.

Elliott’s biography tells the story of a woman trying to find a way of faith, questioning what she had received from the teaching of the church and trying to make sense of her own disability. She was not blind, the fourth stanza is pure metaphor, but her health was poor. Her collection of poems, Hours of Sorrow Cheered and Comforted begins with these words: ‘Not for the gay and thoughtless do I weave/These plaintive strains: they have not learned to grieve’. She knew such grief and this informed her writing.

When we take the risk of allowing our writing to be influenced in this way I believe that we open ourselves to our own humanity and others will find that they can identify with what we have written and make it their own. So I want to make a case for the conscious use of biography and experience to inform our hymn writing. This is best done by reference to hymns and writers we already know. Though it would be informative to try to delve into the work of contemporary writers, that could be hurtfully intrusive and we might even draw the wrong conclusions. Nevertheless it is my hope that we might look at the texts we use to seek to understand the human experience which lies beneath them. Then as we write, we might provide material which is more accessible to others and more likely to give expression to the emotions and needs of those for whom we write. As we do so we will mirror what John Calvin believed the Psalms did and that is not a bad basis for our creativity
Frederick Faber, writing in 1861, reflected that The Olney Hymns acted ‘like a spell upon him for years’, while the influence of Wesley on his writing is also discernible. The Olney Hymns, published by John Newton and William Cowper in 1779, had the intention of providing ‘for the promotion of faith and the comfort of sincere Christians’. We know that John Newton wrote biographically when he composed ‘Amazing grace’. In Charles Wesley’s writing there is a strand of clear biography but this is often lost deep within the theology and scriptural allusion of the texts we sing. When his son was dying of smallpox he wrote a poem which begins with an allusion to Isaac and an identification of his son with that character as he is waiting to be sacrificed. Then with great emotion the piece continues: ‘For pity’s sake the victim spare/And give me back my son’. The words are individual and extremely personal yet the questions are eternal and the lament universal. Charles Wesley commented, ‘how little do parents know/What evils are prevented by an early death’. Like any parent he tried to understand the incomprehensible, to give reason to the irrational.
These influences are a starting point for Faber in as much as they give him permission to write personally and pastorally.
There is one other author to whom we should first look, and that is William Cowper. ‘O for a closer walk with God’ is threaded through with strands of his own experience. This is a personal plea every bit as powerful as those we find in the individual Psalms of lament:

O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?1

As I have remarked elsewhere,

Cowper struggled with Calvinism and arrived at the conviction that he was predestined to damnation. Writing to John Newton he said: ‘The future appears as gloomy as ever; and I seem to myself to be scrambling always in the dark, among rocks and precipices, without a guide, but with an enemy ever at my heels, prepared to push me headlong. Thus have I spent twenty long years’. He goes on to state that death will come before another twenty are out, and that the ‘enemy of Mankind’ has had such an interest in him that ‘even God’s omnipotence to save is a consideration that affords me no comfort, While I seem to have a foe omnipotent to destroy’.
These experiences, together with Cowper’s grasp of language, led him to write some of the finest hymnody on the subject of desolation. These texts are still well known while his poetry is more obscure. His words are poignant, born of experience. They focus particularly on doubt and uncertainty yet, like the psalmist, his words are undergirded with a sense of faith so that, even as he anticipates damnation, he sees affliction as being part of God’s will with the power to work for good. His words often seem contradictory, saying at one moment, ‘The saints should never be dismayed’, while at another giving voice to a sense of desperation, ‘Send none unhealed away’. Cowper’s God is one to whom people can come when they are ‘Deep-wounded souls’, but there is always a sense of personal unworthiness:

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?

Throughout all his lamenting and searching there is the reassurance that God ‘…proclaims his grace abroad!’ and changes hearts of stone, that, on turning to God, ‘..calm content and peace we find’. Even when we are lost in ‘blind unbelief…God is his own interpreter/And he will make it plain’, and though our ‘love is weak and faint’ we should seek grace to love God more, that in the end we might echo the words of a hymn fragment which, both in language and rhythm, urges us to progress to our ultimate goal:

To Jesus, the Crown of my Hope,
My soul is in haste to be gone:
O bear me ye cherubims, up,
And waft me away to his throne!2

Many texts in Faber’s collection are of a similarly reflective, individual nature. Through his hymns we find him working out his faith. In his collection of 1849 ‘The Thought of God’ speaks in awe of the vastness of God who, though intimate to the believer, is ‘beyond imagined space’. This sense of awe brings an appropriate fear of God which Faber addresses in the next text, ‘The Fear of God’. Following very much the pattern of William Cowper, Faber now admits to a dryness of spirit. In a text entitled ‘Peevishness’ he longs to be near to God while being ‘amidst the storm’ and attests that he is ‘deadly sick of men’, that ‘It seems as if I loathed the earth’. He diagnoses a discord within himself and states that: ‘…this peevishness with good/Is want of love of God’. ‘Tis we who weigh upon ourselves;/Self is the irksome weight’. All his efforts are unable to counter his sense of desolation:

Therefore I crave for scenes which might
my fettered thoughts unbind,
And where the elements might be
Like scapegoats to my mind.3

Such scapegoats would take away with them those things which he felt obscured God. Then, Faber hopes, that all things will tell ‘Not of Thy worship, but much more,/And only, Lord! of Thee’. It is natural to move from this point of abandonment to consider what is God’s intention for our lives and for eternity, and this Faber does. ‘Predestination’ explores the concept of election and God’s will to work in human lives. The struggle with the conflict between experience and faith continues and is told through the medium of the hymns. Not only the texts themselves but the way in which they are collected together takes us on a spiritual journey. In ‘The Right Must Win’ Faber struggles with the observation that good does not always triumph:

Ah! God is other than we think;
His ways are far above,
Far beyond reason’s height, and reached
Only by childlike love.

Right is not always where it seems to be, and so:

Blest too is he who can divine
Where real right doth lie,
And dares to take the side that seems
Wrong to man’s blindfold eye.

The faithful are urged:

Then learn to scorn the praise of men,
And learn to lose with God;
For Jesus won the world through shame,
And beckons thee His road.

In the end a truth will be discerned:

For right is right, since God is God;
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.

The words are his own, hewn out of his own struggles and experience and, sometimes perhaps, we echo them.
Theology and biography intertwine in many of these texts. For Cowper the ‘mysterious way’ in which God moves in part reflects his mental state and experience. Faber sought a God of wide mercy and gentle love having lost his mother when he was quite young, but also struggled with the predestinarianism of his Calvinist upbringing. Similarly the theology that nuances Charles Wesley’s writing more than any other is that of Calvin.
For Wesley Calvinist predestinarianism was answered by Arminianism. Whether he is writing in an overtly polemic fashion or in a more affirming style Arminian theology permeates his hymns. His own feelings sometimes thread themselves through the verse. The stanzas of ‘What shall I do my God to love’ speak of the Arminian theology that John Wesley preached. Verse 4 is the verse which is particularly influenced by Charles own spiritual experience to which we find significant witness in his sermons. We normally sing John Wesley’s version of these words: ‘My trespass was grown up to heaven’. Charles Wesley had written ‘My trespass is grown up to heaven’. He found the path to perfection ran consistently up hill. Yet on other occasions there is an overwhelming sense of joy and hope derived from his personal faith experience and often expressed in the first person, for example, ‘And can it be that I should gain an interest in the saviour’s blood’.
Where is all this leading us? Hymns historically have been defined as ‘praise of God sung’. Yet it has been acknowledged for years that, especially in the free-church tradition, the purpose of hymns has widened. The authors that I have addressed so briefly in this paper have, additionally to any other influence, allowed their own feelings, experience and biography to inform their writing.
A sub-text of personal experience is found in many texts written during the last fifty years. Sometimes the experience is buried and we simply guess at the events which have prompted authorship. For others, notes accompanying the printing of individual hymns allow us to trace the motivation of their writers. On occasion hymns are written second hand, as it were, the authors having imagined themselves into the place of others and then poured out praise or lament as if it was their own. We turn back again for a single, perhaps the best, example of this genre to Frederick Faber:

My children! My children! they clustered all round me,
Like a rampart which sorrow could never break through;
Each change in their beautiful lives only bound me
In a spell of delight which no care could undo.

The picture is one of a mother besotted with her children. The words are individual with the repetitive use of the personal and possessive pronouns. The following reflection on the nature of the one who has died only heightens the image:

But the eldest! O Father! how glorious he was,
With the soul looking out through his fountain like eyes:
Thou lovest Thy Sole-born! And had I not cause
The treasure Thou gavest me, Father! to prize.

The text begins to move into the spirit of lament and protest characteristic of the psalmist, but it is still full of subtle observation and tenderness as we imagine this blue-eyed, perhaps sensitive, child. The sense of outrage continues through the succeeding verses, mingled with description, as we hear that the child was, ‘My tallest! My fairest! Oh let me complain;/For all life is unroofed, and the tempests beat through’. The romantic imagery of the hymn comparing the loss of bereavement with the destructiveness of nature, is woven through the whole piece. The responsibility for the death is laid at God’s door for, ‘All was bright, but Thou camest, so dreadful and brief,/Like a thunderbolt falling in gardens of flowers’, it is as though a ‘lily-bed lies beaten down by the rain’.

The author begins to rationalise what has happened, to debate with God:

I murmur not Father! My will is with Thee;
I knew at the first that my darling was Thine:
Hadst Thou taken him earlier, O Father! – but see!
Thou had left him so long that I dreamed he was mine.

Faber recognises that love can result in pain when the loved one dies. He writes with compassion, not discouraging loving attachment, but grieving the more for the loss:

Thou hast taken the fairest: he was fairest to me
Thou hast taken the fairest: ’tis always Thy way;
Thou has taken the dearest: was he dearest to Thee?
Thou art welcome, thrice welcome: – yet woe is the day!

The text reflects the very common, and not very healthy idea, that God took the specially loveable children because he wanted them for himself, and wanted them young and innocent. The initiative of God is fervently underlined as each line begins, ‘Thou’. The words are not ones of acquiescence, but rather of accusation. Even the phrase, ”tis always Thy way’ is less one of resignation in the context. It is a complaint against God’s seeming capacity to inflict the greatest pain when He inflicts pain at all, continuing the theme of the opening two lines of the text: ‘Thou touchest us lightly, O God! in our grief;/But how rough is Thy touch in our prosperous hours!’ It is as though God is trying to have the greatest effect possible as He takes this child. We are reminded again, by the repetitive nature of the text, just how fair and dear was this child, so that the question, ‘was he dearest to Thee’ becomes rhetorical suggesting that he could not possibly be; the closing line being almost thrown in God’s face.
Up to this point we may have been convinced of the commitment of the author to his text and his identification with the subject matter. Yet, if we reflect, we remember that Faber was not married, was a Catholic priest and had no children. His imagination has enabled him to reflect on the grief of a mother who has lost her child and to use that reflection to inform his text in such a way as to make these words a useful prayer at the time he was writing.
Today we would eschew such sentimental hymns, but many will be able to look at texts, particularly by Fred Kaan, Brian Wren or John Bell, and guess at their inspiration even when the author has not made this explicit. The consequence of earthing hymns in ordinary human circumstances is that others singing the words can easily identify with them and make them their own. The hymns become a means to help us to tell our own stories. We can then place them in the context of the gospel. The hymns speak to our own condition.
Is there a message here for those of us who continue to write? I believe there is. If without being overly self-indulgent we can root our texts in reality, in personal experience of ourselves and others, then what we write will be more helpful in the worship of the church and more supportive to the lives of ordinary Christians.


1 All quotations of words by William Cowper are taken from Cowper, W., Poetical Works, Edit. W.M. Rossetti, Moxon, London.
2 Pratt, A.E., Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, Inter Varsity Press, Leicester, 2003, pp162-3.
3 All quotations of hymns by Frederick Faber are taken from Faber, F.W., Hymns, 1861.

© Andrew Pratt 2010

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Andrew Pratt

Andrew Pratt was born in Paignton, Devon, England in 1948.

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