Fanny Crosby: Her Song Goes On

It seems fitting to conclude my series of blog posts on American hymnology by focusing on one of America’s most well-beloved hymn writers, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). Even though Crosby passed away over a century ago, she still speaks to us through timeless texts like “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” “To God Be the Glory,” “Blessed Assurance,”  and “Redeemed, How I Love to Proclaim It.” Crosby is the first female hymn writer I have had the privilege to write about, and her life teaches us some important lessons.

     Everything Crosby did strikes me as productive. She lived to the age of 95. She collaborated with many of the well-known gospel writers of her day, men like William Bradbury, George Root, William Doane, Robert Lowry, Ira Sankey, John Swenney, Philip Phillips, and William Kirkpatrick, to name a few. It is estimated she wrote over 8,500 texts, thousands of which were published before her death. She sold hundreds of thousands of copies of her hymn texts with the prominent gospel hymn publishing company Biglow and Main (what is now Hope Publishing Company) and wrote with 200 different pen names. What makes this output all the more remarkable is the fact that, by her own testimony, Crosby did not become a true believer until the age of 30 and did not start writing hymns until the age of 44. Any accomplishments before that time—and she had many—she counted as small in comparison to her hymn-writing work.

     It is well-known that Crosby became blind at just six weeks of age due to mistreatment of an illness. When she was fifteen years old, she began attending the New York Institute for the Blind. There she became a grammar, rhetoric, and American history teacher, and remained in that position for 23 years. While at the Institute for the Blind, Crosby began writing texts in collaboration with the institute’s music teacher, George F. Root, and she enjoy considerable success in publishing verse. She had met many important figures such as U.S. Presidents Van Buren and Tyler.

     But in her own words, Fanny Crosby “found her career” when she started writing hymn texts (Blumhofer, 199). Crosby clearly loved writing hymn texts and did not allow her blindness to handicap her. She frequently worked out lyrics in her head, editing them internally, until she had opportunity to ask someone to write them down for her. She could then recite up to 7 different texts at a time, usually with a book in hand, though she did not use the book. She also had an unusual gift for composing texts on the spot.

William Bradbury published Fanny Crosby’s first gospel hymn in his 1864 gospel songbook, The Golden Censer. The above picture is taken directly from the original.

     Crosby’s remarkable life reminds us of the necessity of making the most of the time. Yet Crosby did not do this with an attitude of a suffering victim. Let’s face it—if there was anyone who could have played the victim card, it would have been Crosby. But her faith in God went beyond what she could see. She faithfully wrote hymn texts at a staggering rate and loved every minute of it. She displayed a humble, cooperative spirit in that she was able to collaborate with so many different personalities. From a human perspective, Fanny Crosby was dependent on others to produce her hymn texts; but the real secret to her success was her dependence on God. She bathed the whole hymn-writing process in prayer and faced considerable adversity with joy-filled faith.

     For those of us who know Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, we would do well to face our trials with this same kind of steadfast, joy-filled faith. We would do well to approach our labors with this same kind of eager willingness. Fanny Crosby reminds us what God can do with a meager five loaves and two fish. We simply need to trust him and do the work he has given us to do, in spite of adversity, until our laboring days are done.


A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny Crosby by Edith L. Blumhofer (William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2005).

Are You Listening?

“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
Proverbs 12:15

“All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.”
Proverbs 16:2

“Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.”
Proverbs 21:2

“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” Proverbs 26:12

Listen Up!

Perhaps no sin may grieve God more than an unwillingness to listen to others. That may seem like a strong statement to you, but according to God being unwilling to listen is the essence of pride. The passages in Proverbs I listed above help us to see this clearly. Each opening phrase highlights the fool’s perspective. In the second phrase, God answers the pride of the fool. These proverbs not only expose the folly of failing to listen to the advice of those around us; they remind us our attitude of independence is naked and exposed to the eyes of God who can see our heart.

Are you a good listener? I cannot tell you how many times I have caught myself drifting in thought while my wife Emily shares with me something important on her heart. The problem is not with Emily. She is beautiful, easy to talk to, considerate in her conversation, and my closest companion in life. No, the problem is with me. By failing to listen, I reveal a heart of pride that considers my thoughts more important than hers. Even if I do not always agree with her, I ought to hear her out completely.

The Proud Fruits of Ignorance

I can think of two kinds of arrogant fruits that sprout from an unwillingness to listen. The first is easiest to spot. It is the proud refusal to listen to anyone who disagrees with me. We can immediately see the foolishness of this kind of pride in others. The least we can do is educate ourselves and give others a fair hearing. In listening to other people’s advice, we also do ourselves a big favor. We glean a fuller perspective of the issues at hand. We discover blind spots we never saw before. We grow into a more balanced opinion, rather than living off knee-jerk reactions. But if you refuse to ever listen to people who disagree with you, or impatiently forge ahead with little research, you short-circuit the entire wisdom process. You may even hurt yourself and others. These actions expose a heart of pride and arrogant folly, God tells us.

The second kind of arrogant fruit that sprouts from an unwillingness to listen is much more subtle and dangerous than the first. It develops more slowly, but its roots grow deeper and stronger. Why? Because this second arrogant fruit grows in the soil of those who have already avoided the first folly. This kind of person has done the hard work of research. They know all the possible options. They have patiently gleaned from various perspectives. They may have even discovered their own blind spots. But while God intends this process to humble that person with the realization of how little they know, they grow arrogant instead. Their learning should cause them recognize their own fallibility in comparison to God’s perfection. Yet instead of responding in humility, in mutual submission, and in gracious love towards others, they close their hearts to the words others are saying. They listen with their head, but fail to listen with their heart.

Listen with Your Heart

This is what God means when he warns, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart.” (Proverbs 21:2) Why does our heart attitude matter so much to God? Because we may know the best decision to make yet in pride refuse to make that decision. We may know what God wants, but go our own way anyway because, in pride, we want it more.

I know this is true in my own life when Emily and I are having a “discussion,” and she makes a good point. I may know Emily is right, but in my pride I refuse to agree with her. My head and my heart are misaligned. In the face of this folly God warns us, “the Lord weighs the heart.”

So beware of being unwilling to listen. Pride festers in the flowerbeds of ignorance. Give God the worship he deserves with your entire being, both head and heart.


“We” or “Me” in Church?

Americans have always placed a premium on individualism. But, in the Coronavirus pandemic, we have carried individualism to a new level. To avoid going out, some people are trying to get “off the grid” by generating their own power, planting their own gardens, or doing anything else imaginable. We see this same problem in our churches. Instead of meeting corporately, we have been forced to watch services online from the isolation of our homes. We know it is a necessary evil done out of love for each other. But our instincts also tell us this cannot be healthy in the long-term. Sure, we like individualism, but not many people like isolation.

     The gospel song movement reached its high point with the publishing of Philip Paul Bliss’s (1838-1876) and Ira D. Sankey’s (1840-1908) Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (1875). Both men traveled as song-leaders with well-known revivalists, Bliss with D.W. Whittle and Sankey with D.L. Moody. Bliss and Sankey also affiliated with their own established publishing companies. Bliss even created the name for the gospel song genre when he published a song book entitled Gospel Songs (1874). As a result of their combined influence and capacities, Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs sold over 50 million copies by the turn of the 20th century.

Original title page of Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs. You can browse the entire book for free in the Internet Archive by clicking HERE. You may be surprised at how many songs you recognize.

     What kind of currents in history could create this immense demand for gospel songs? Bliss’s teacher William Bradbury (1816-1868) had laid the foundation by furnishing an entire generation of children with Sunday school songs through the YMCA and American Sunday School Union. That generation grew up, got married, and began forming their own families, but they retained a hunger for songs of the Sunday school flavor. Bliss and Sankey filled that void.

My mother-in-law, Paula Cheadle, provided the illustrations for this biography on Ira Sankey (more info HERE), including this marvelous watercolor on the front cover.

Part of the success of the gospel song has to do with its individual character. “Gospel hymns served as direct purpose in giving a musical voice to the emotion and personal testimony of evangelical worship, conveying that emotion clearly and simply” (Ogasapian, 189). Gospel songs resonated with young believers who wanted to give expression to their faith, to tell of the good news. But the gospel song’s greatest strength was also its greatest weakness. Ogasapian continues, “As such, issues of musical quality and even substantive theological discourse are simply irrelevant. Sankey never thought of himself as performing music for his crowds, but rather of singing them the Gospel, as he himself put it. Such music accorded well with the spirit of the late-nineteenth-century revivals” (189). I purposefully quote Ogasapian on this point because he is much more charitable towards the gospel song than many of its critics who look down on the gospel song for its musically simple and sometimes overly-sentimental character. I want to gently address what others have, perhaps, harshly demeaned.

Sankey and Bliss had a knack for selecting songs that resonated with their audience. “I Need Thee Every Hour,” shown above as song #3 in Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs, was one such selection.

     I think sugar is a good analogy in this case. Sugar is wonderful to taste and enjoyable in appropriate amounts. But too much of it can cause serious problems for your body. In the same way, the Bible gives room for individual expression, as we see in the Psalms. Our personal testimony can point others toward the gospel, which we have been commissioned by Christ to do. But too much individualism (and the wrong kind) can cause serious problems in the body of Christ. If we are accurate in our theology, we must recognize the New Testament emphasizes the “we” more than the “me” in gathered worship. I have not come to worship alone—we have gathered together to worship Christ as one church. Such mutual presence demonstrates an interdependence on each other’s gifts, a need for accountability, and an obligation to serve others rather than ourselves. If we are not very careful, a steady diet of gospel songs in our worship can tip the balance of our theology and practice in an unhealthy, self-serving direction.

     I think many Americans did and still do gravitate towards this genre of music because it resonates with the individualistic values in our culture. Because of our cultural preferences, we may not always see the disadvantages associated with the gospel song. I am not saying the gospel song has no value or place in the Christian church. Even as I flipped through the titles in Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs I was saying, “Yes, I love that one. And that one. And that one.” What I am saying, however, is that we should be intentional about every song we choose to sing and when we choose to sing it. The gospel songs themselves had roots in the Sunday school movement, which created songs for use with children in Sunday school. We should ask ourselves, “Is this message appropriate for this setting? Have we exalted Christ in what we have sung? Have we sung the whole gospel, not just the parts of it I resonate with?” These kinds of questions will steer us in the right direction and help us appreciate the gospel song for what it is.



A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

This series of blog posts on American Hymnody were originally written as a part of an online graduate class taught by Dr. Fred Coleman at Bob Jones University during the spring semester of 2020.

Let the Little Children Sing

From the time Emily and I first knew we were expecting, we sang “Jesus Loves Me” to our daughter Evelyn. She heard it in the womb, then in the first few moments after delivery, and even now she hears it every evening at bed time. Next, we immersed her sister Kyrsten in the tradition. We now get the joy of singing “Jesus Loves Me” to our third daughter, still in the womb. This immensely popular song has a simple beauty and enduring quality to it. Anna B. Warner (1820-1915) wrote the text, and William B. Bradbury (1816-1868) wrote the tune. We owe a great debt to Bradbury in particular, not only for his influence in popularizing this wonderful children’s song, but also for a wealth of other “Sunday school songs” that have directly influenced our hymnody today.

     A native of Maine, Bradbury’s family moved to Boston when he was fourteen years old. There Bradbury studied under the influential Lowell Mason. In due time, Bradbury was in New York City serving as a Baptist choir director and organist at such prominent churches as First Baptist Church of Brooklyn, Baptist Tabernacle, and Broadway Tabernacle. An educator and composer, Bradbury blended elements of the camp meeting song, urban revivalism, and secular tunes to pioneer a new genre—the Sunday school song.

     Bradbury was so influential it is hard condense the scope of his works. Oriola (1859) stands out as his first Sunday school songbook. Its initial success may have encouraged him to continue his work; he soon published a trio of songbooks, cleverly titled Golden Chain (1861), Golden Shower (1862), and Golden Censer (1864). These three books were then combined and sold in various collections like the Golden Trio (1866). Bradford authored the tunes we still sing today to cherished texts like Dorothy A. Thrupp’s “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us” (Oriola), William Wolford’s “Sweet Hour of Prayer” (Golden Chain), and Edward Mote’s “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”

     In fact, Bradbury served as the Sunday school editor of the prominent publishing company Biglow and Main. He collaborated with Lowell Mason and several other significant church musicians to establish the Normal Musical Institute in New York, which became a proto-type for other such institutes nation-wide. Bradbury also contributed directly to the rise of the vastly popular stream we call “gospel songs.” As a result, Bradbury still influences us today.  

Title page of Bradbury’s Golden Chain, published in 1861

     Bradbury and his Sunday school song colleagues have, at times, been criticized for being uneducated, unrefined composers. But Bradbury enjoyed a European-quality music education equal to any of his time. Even his own teachers did not appreciate some of his work. We can only conclude that Bradbury made the conscious decision to write in a style that served the needs of his audience—often children. And, like Isaac Watts’s “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” many of Bradbury’s tunes for children made their way into adult church hymnody.

     We should be thankful for Bradbury’s humble, Christ-like service to the church. Though he was a towering figure, he did not hesitate to “stoop” and craft such simple, timeless tunes as what we find in “Jesus Loves Me.” He knew we should invite the little children to come and sing; such an endeavor was never below him. His humility is something we ought to appreciate and emulate.


A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

Coronavirus and Christ (John Piper)

I wanted to write a blog post addressing how a Christian navigates our current Coronavirus crisis. Such a discussion is profitable not only for Christians, but also for anyone who is looking for a steady rock in the shifting sands of uncertainty. These truly unprecedented times have caused many of us to think more deeply about life than we otherwise would have.

Thankfully, John Piper penned and published a book in just 14 days that addresses those issues. I heartily recommend this FREE (digital or audio download) resource to you and anyone you know. At just around 100 pages, it is short, understandable, yet profoundly deep. Click here to download a copy today.


Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals)

Dealing with all the dirtiness of the Coronavirus made me start thinking about all the biblical themes of uncleanness that permeate the gospels. Jesus, by nature of his healing power, seemed to draw both physically and spiritually dirty people to him.

It isn’t something we like to think or talk about, but our world’s real and deadly plague reminds us of the deeper infection that all humanity already is plagued by. It reminds us that the only one who can heal us of our sin is Jesus Christ. The name Jehovah Rapha is a Hebrew title for God, meaning “the Lord who heals.” God may or may not choose to heal us from physical sickness, but the gospels make clear Jesus stands ready to heal anyone who comes to him for spiritual healing.

I wrote a song to try to capture this idea. I hope it ministers to your soul. You can watch me sing it here:

Jehovah Rapha (The Lord Who Heals)

“Unclean!” The leper cries,
He dare not lift his eyes,
But staggers up in shame and makes a scene.
For having found the Christ,
He begs with all his might,
“If you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Unclean a dozen years
With flow of blood and tears,
The suff’ring woman reaches through the crowd.
With just a simple touch
Her flow of blood dries up,
“Who touched me?” Says the Savior, turning round.

Jehovah Rapha, touch us with your hand,
For we cry “Abba! Father! Heal our land.”
If you are willing, you can make us clean.
For You alone are able to redeem.

With trembling and with fear,
We all can still draw near,
With wounds that go far deeper than our skin.
For Jesus saves the soul,
Who begs to be made whole,
Repenting from the plague of sin within.

Jehovah Rapha, touch us with your hand,
For we cry “Abba! Father! Heal our land.”
If you are willing, you can make us clean.
For you alone are able to redeem.

Copyright 2020 by Cameron Pollock

Transcending the Worship Wars

What do you think when you walk into a church building and see an organ placed prominently toward the front? What about a drum set? How about an electric guitar? Depending on your views of worship and music, the mere sight of an instrument at the front of the sanctuary can evoke a wide range of emotional and mental responses. Nothing summarizes the issue of the “worship wars” better than the use of instruments in worship. Some debate whether we should use any instruments in worship at all.

     And yet, for a brief moment, I would like to transcend the entire debate by pointing to a piece of our history that endures even to the present day. I would like to use history to highlight an instrument in our worship that we can all heartily agree upon and be thankful for. Let’s talk about The Sacred Harp.

     In 1844, Benjamin Franklin White (1800-1879) and E.J. King (1821-1844) published a tunebook in Georgia entitled The Sacred Harp. Just nine years before this publication, White’s brother-in-law William Walker (1809-1875) had issued his own popular tunebook in South Carolina, The Southern Harmony (1835). Tunebooks were oblong shaped and generally contained the same material: “a few European psalm tunes, pieces by Northern composers such as Billings and Holden, previously-printed folk hymns by Chapins and others, and an assortment of folk hymns that were being published for the first time” (Music and Westermeyer, 54). Unlike other southern tunebook compilers, however, White and King also chose to include a few of their own pieces—White’s “Baptismal Anthem” and King’s “Reverential Anthem.”

Handwritten fasola notation by Dr. Fred Coleman (American Hymnology, BJU 2020).

     These tunebooks are known as “fasola” books because they utilize shape notes. “Fah,” the first note of the scale, is represented by a triangle, then “sol” by an oval, and “law” by a rectangle. Singing teachers used the system to aid in sight-singing. While the idea of shape notes developed into a variety of systems, The Sacred Harp endured beyond its contemporaries, enjoying successive reprints for several generations. In fact, groups today still host singing sessions using a revised, 1991 edition of The Sacred Harp (visit to discover more). Singers gather in a “hollow square,” with four parts siting on each side of a square facing each other. A leader in the middle directs the group in singing selections from The Sacred Harp. The result is an intimate, communal setting where the sum is greater than the parts.


Layout of the “hollow square” for tunebook singing groups

How remarkable that a tunebook published over 175 years ago still endures today, not just in print, but in song. To me it is a fitting tribute to The Sacred Harp, for the title itself refers to the human voice. The human voice is the sacred harp, the instrument we all are gifted by God at birth. Regardless of your denomination or generation, we all can give thanks to God for that most wonderful of instruments, the human voice.

     I don’t know about you, but I long for a day when we won’t have to argue about church music anymore. Praise God we can find bright spots of unity even in the midst of the chaos.

     I don’t know about you, but I long for a day when we won’t have to argue about church music anymore. Praise God we can find bright spots of unity even in the midst of the chaos. More important than the instrument that sits at the front of the sanctuary is the instrument God placed within you, the instrument you carry with you everywhere you go, and the instrument that can be a source of comfort and encouragement at all times and all places—your voice. During this time of change and uncertainty, our voices are a powerful gift from God we can use to shine light in very dark and distant places. I hope you will “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Certainly this truth is something we all can agree on.



A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

Give Us This Day Our Non-Perishables

My wife Emily just got back from the grocery store this morning. In light of the Coronavirus pandemic, we weren’t really sure what to expect. We prayed with our two little girls before mommy left for the store, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Then she returned with an embarrassment of rations. Don’t get me wrong—we actually need all that food to survive (those with hungry little ones in their homes are all nodding in agreement). We thanked God for his provision, then began unloading grocery bags, when suddenly it hit me—a lot of people are consumed with obtaining non-perishables right now, but Jesus told us to pray for daily bread. There’s a lesson to learn there.

Do Not Be Anxious About Daily Provisions

In the same chapter he teaches us the Lord’s prayer, Jesus addresses the topic of storing up food. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25)

Jesus uses the Lord’s prayer to expose our anxiety. He prayed for daily bread, not non-perishables. I know, I know, the term didn’t exist in his day. But the basic truth stands: anxiety over lack of daily provisions is wrong.

“But,” you may say, “it is wise to plan for the future!” It’s true, God does elevate wisdom, calling us to embrace it. But we need to be careful we do not use wisdom as a cloak for unfounded fear. Rather, wisdom flows from an intimate relationship of reverent awe and holy fear of our Lord. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:10) So if the Lord has anything to say about this topic, and he does, we would be wise to listen to him.

When my wife goes grocery shopping, she purchases about a week’s worth of food. Once a month we trek to Costco and buy some bulk items to save a few extra dollars. With refrigeration and storage considerations, weekly trips work well for us. That’s all we need, and we ought to pray that God would provide it for us.

In Jesus’s day, in spite of the lack of refrigeration, the situation was similar. Israelites could store up grain or bottle wine, they could fish on a given day, or they could slaughter a sheep from the flock. Most had resources available beyond their need of “daily bread.” Yet the sword, famine, or pestilence could threaten their food supplies. For some reason we think modern technology and food storage techniques make us less vulnerable. We are not.

Consider Your Value Before God

Jesus’s message to his followers is the same for believers today. Don’t build bigger barns, instead, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:26-29)

It is not the lilies of the field that bear the image of God. It is not the birds of the air for whom Christ died. If God takes such diligent care for the least of his creatures, why do we doubt is care for us, the crown jewel of his creation? “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

We certainly do not need to gather any more anxiety in our hearts. Yet we often spend our time and money obsessing over things that will never happen to us. Our gathered goods often are a mirror image of the gathered anxiety in our hearts. In fact, Jesus just finished saying, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) Charles Spurgeon nails the issue with his usual pithiness.

“Many of God’s people are constantly under apprehensions of calamities which will never occur to them, and they suffer far more in merely dreading them than they would have to endure if they actually came upon them. In their imagination, there are rivers in their way, and they are anxious to know how they shall wade through them, or swim across them. There are no such rivers in existence, but they are agitated and distressed about them. An old proverb says, “Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it;” but these timid people are continually crossing bridges that only exist in their foolish fancies. They stab themselves with imaginary daggers, they starve themselves in imaginary famines, and even bury themselves in imaginary graves. We are such strange creatures that we probably suffer more under blows which never fall upon us than we do under those which do actually come. The rod of God does not strike us as sharply as the rod of our own imagination does; our groundless fears are our chief tormentors, and when we are able to abolish our self-inflictions, all the worries of the world become light and easy. However, it is a pity that Christians who have the gift of faith in Christ given to them, should fall into so guilty and at the same time so painful a habit as this of fearing the oppressor who does not come, and who never will come.”

Charles Spurgeon, Needless Fears,
sermon on Is. 51:12-13 preached June 11, 1874

Confess Your Lack of Faith

Jesus has spoken so clearly about this issue that his words need no further explanation. He simply challenges us to make the application.

“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” (Matthew 6:30-31)

When Jesus tells us to pray for our daily bread, he really means it. He rebukes us for our “little faith.” And we don’t like this rebuke. The truth hurts. Peter knew what it felt like to be rebuked by his Lord. Peter put his foot in his mouth so many times, he probably would have done well to just leave it there. And Peter has some good advice for us when responding to our Lord’s words.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6-7) In our pride, we don’t want to confess sin. “Confession is good for the soul, bad for the reputation,” they say. And this fear of being humbled causes anxiety in our hearts. Just as we fail to trust God for daily bread, we also fail to trust God by humbly confessing our sin. Do you see a pattern here? Anxiety in one area tends to spread its ugly roots all throughout the garden of our heart.

Feed on the Bread of Heaven

Instead of stubbornly persisting in patterns of anxiousness, we would do well to listen to Jesus. Here’s his simple solution: “For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:32-33)

In John 6, Jesus tells us three times, “I am the bread of life.” He tells us to seek him for our spiritual and physical livelihood. He is not ignoring the reality of our physical needs, rather he is putting them in their proper perspective. Our need for physical bread should remind us of our greater need for spiritual bread. Saved saints should not live like those in the world who do not trust God to provide their daily bread. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. So seek him first, gather only what physical supplies you truly need, and “all these things will be added to you.” Your local Walmart store manager will thank you.

What Camp Meeting Choruses Teach Us About the Gospel

“Let’s sing that chorus one more time!” the worship leader calls out. You sing it again, this time louder and with more energy, “amening” the truth of the song with your voice along with everyone around you. In today’s music world, the best part of a song is often imbedded in the chorus or refrain. Songwriters constantly are looking for that perfect match of lyrics and music, that perfect “hook” that will help it endure the test of time.

     But things weren’t always this way. The idea of a chorus/refrain actually developed from a particular moment in American church history. And you might be surprised when you find out.

     At the beginning of the 1800s, ministers of Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and other denominations perceived a need in the western frontier. Settlers, slaves, and natives were isolated and uneducated, without access to churches or preaching. Moral decay ensued, for many had never even heard the gospel.

     Surprisingly, it was the Presbyterians, not the Baptists, who took this evangelistic opportunity most seriously (the Methodists would later continue the tradition after other denominations had moved on). James McGready, a Presbyterian minister, was the central figure in the resultant camp meeting revivals that swept the western frontier. At that time, the Ohio River Valley formed the western frontier. Camp meeting revivals began primarily in the heart of Kentucky, then spread to Tennessee, Ohio, and beyond. Ministers from various denominations would team up to clear out a large tract of land and set up multiple preaching stands. As many as four preachers at a time would preach simultaneously in the open air at a distance from each other, and crowds would gather around the preaching stand of their choice to listen. Attenders frequently traveled long distances from surrounding regions, so they would set up camp around the perimeter of the meeting area and remain for days, even weeks, hence the term “camp meeting revivals.”

Artist’s rendering of camp meeting revival

     “The most famous, and perhaps the biggest, camp meeting was held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August of 1801. The idea caught on quickly, so that within five years of the Cane Ridge revival camp meetings had spread throughout the frontier areas of the Southwest and Northeast, and had even been exported to Great Britain. It is estimated that by 1820 almost 1000 such meetings had been held” (Music & Westermeyer, 60).

     Some call this time period the “Second Great Awakening” (the first being led by Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield), while others dismiss it due to the associated emotional fervor. These frontier camp meetings differed vastly from the more stately, formal services of established east coast churches. Critics often point out “extreme physical manifestations such as shouting, falling on the ground in a trance-like state, uncontrollable laughter, or barking like a dog” (Music & Westermeyer, 60).

     As should be expected, the camp meeting revivals developed their own distinctive genre of music. Ministers knew their listeners were largely uneducated, simple-minded people, and they wanted to give these people a means of expressing the joy of their newfound revival. Tune books were not necessary, because most people could not read words, much less music. It was impractical to carry thousands of tune books to the wilderness to distribute to people who could not use them. As such, the earliest lyrics from this time were printed in “songsters,” free of any musical notation, most likely to aid ministers at the camp meetings who “lined out” (sang the words for the congregation to repeat back) the songs.

     While ministers often composed these camp meeting songs themselves, we do have records of other possible origins. John Adam Granade (1763-1807), a Methodist from North Carolina called “Wild Man of the Woods,” printed The Pilgrim’s Songster in Lexington, Kentucky in 1804.  In the same year, Caleb Jarvis Taylor (1763-approx. 1810) released his Spiritual Songs, also from Lexington. The title Spiritual Songs highlights the interesting fact that camp meeting songs soon came to be called “spiritual songs.” These “spiritual songs” spread as the popularity of camp meetings grew, and soon found their way into many notated collections such as Ingalls’s The Christian Harmony (1805), Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813), Davisson’s Supplement to the Kentucky Harmony (1820),Walker’s The Southern Harmony (1835), White and King’s The Sacred Harp (1844), McCurry’s The Social Harp (1855), and Leavitt’s The Christian Lyre.

     Hymnologists agree the refrain or chorus is the most important element of a camp meeting song. [1] What many people do not realize is how camp meeting songs popularized the use of a chorus or refrain. Ministers knew these people needed something simple, so a minister might line out “Gimme that ol’ time religion, gimme that ol’ time religion, gimme that ol’ time religion, it’s good enough for me.” Frontier settlers could pick the words and tune up very easily, and then simply change a key word for each verse, “It was good for my mother/father/sister/brother, it’s good enough for me.” Sometimes the crowd might respond with a simple repeated refrain, much like what we read in Psalm 136 (“for his steadfast love endures forever”).

     But ministers became concerned, and rightly so, that people needed more substance. They began to sing complete stanzas to popular hymns by authors like Watts or Wesley, then allow the congregation to respond with a “tag-line” that often did not completely fit the context of the original hymn. These “tag-lines” were predecessors to the “refrain” we find in later gospel songs.

     One of the best examples of this method is the chorus often attached to Robert Robinson’s Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. Consider the lyrics,

(sung by minister)
Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing,
Tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.

(sung by camp meeting attenders)
I am bound for the kingdom,
Will you go to glory with me?
Hallelujah, praise the Lord.

     The text of the chorus has almost nothing in common with the stanza, but it gave camp meeting attenders an opportunity to affirm the truths of the song in terms they understood. We should not be confused and think that every chorus of every song from the 19th century has it’s roots in camp meeting choruses—but neither should we overlook the impact of the camp meeting genre. Camp meeting spiritual songs cemented in American church music the idea of the chorus or refrain.

     While some may disagree, I believe this development, overall, was a good one. Ministers on the American frontier knew their audience’s greatest need was the gospel of Jesus Christ. The emotional responses of some in the Second Great Awakening does not nullify the spread of the gospel to the many. Frontier preachers didn’t muddle the message or over-complicate it by trying to force east coast hymnody, with it’s profound concepts and refined lyrics, upon the western frontier. They used simple tag-lines that gave people an opportunity to sing about their faith.

     That’s not to say the western frontier would have been right to stay as it was. Theological depth, musical training, literacy, and the rest could come later. But the most urgent need was, and still is, that countless, priceless souls are at stake. If we are not careful, arrogance can creep into our music ministries to the extent that we actually hinder the progress of the gospel in our church services. The prominence of choruses and refrains in our hymnody reminds us that, while maturing our church music is a great endeavor, we must make the gospel our first priority, even as Christ himself commanded (Matt. 28:19-20).


A Survey of Christian Hymnody by William Reynolds & Milburn Price, 5th edition revised and enlarged by David Music & Milburn Price (Hope Publishing, 2010).

Church Music in America by John Ogasapian (Mercer University Press, Macon, GA, 2007).

Church Music in the United States by David W. Music and Paul Westermeyer (MorningStar Music Publishers, 2014).

[1] Technically a refrain repeats a key phrase or melodic material from the stanza. A chorus, on the other hand, introduces material that is more distinct from each stanza of a song.