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52 Hymn Story Devotions
By Lucy Neeley Adams
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2000 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." (Ps. 46:1)
A stormy conflict began on October 31, 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, when a Catholic priest made a list of complaints against the church and nailed that list to the door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg.
That expression of anguish in the heart of Martin Luther ignited the greatest upheaval in centuries within the church. Much conflict arose between those who wanted change and those who did not. Fearing for Martin Luther's safety, a sympathetic friend led him to the shelter of a castle. It was there that Luther experienced afresh the protection and comfort of a mighty God. Within his temporary hiding place, God's Word became more alive and vibrant for him.
During those days of solitude, prayer, and Bible study, Luther began a translation of the Scriptures from Latin into German. "All people must be able to read God's word for themselves," he said. Only the priests were allowed to read the Bible at that time.
Luther also believed that congregational singing should be allowed. "The devil, who is the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of God's music almost as much as before the Word of God," Luther observed. With that inspiration, he composed the hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Inspired by Psalm 46, it is a bold affirmation of a powerful and loving God.
When he returned to face his critics, Luther was armed with renewed determination that he would not recant his protests against the Roman Catholic Church. So, after a struggle for several years with officials in Rome, he was excommunicated in 1521.
However, this great Christian leader did not lose heart. He continued teaching and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ until his death in 1546 at the age of sixty-three in the town of his birth, Eisleben, Saxony, Germany. This majestic hymn was sung at his funeral, and the first line is engraved on his tombstone.
In spite of Luther's excommunication, his hymn was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s. There are divisions in the church today, but this hymn unifies all believers in the love and the purposes of our God."
O God, your strength is my fortress and you are the same from age to age. What a blessing! In Jesus' name. Amen.
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate,
on earth is not his equal.
Martin Luther, ca. 1529; trans. by Frederick H. Hedge, 1853 (Ps. 46)CHAPTER 2
Abide with Me
"Stay with us, for it is nearly evening: the day is almost over." (Luke 24:29, NIV)
The fascinating story of two discouraged followers of Jesus walking on the road to Emmaus is the text for the memorable hymn "Abide with Me." The Crucifixion had shaken these two to their very souls. All hope was gone. They thought Jesus would be on earth forever. But he was gone.
When the risen Lord appeared to walk by their side, they did not recognize him. Upon reaching their home, they invited the stranger to stay and eat. As he blessed the bread and broke it, they realized who the stranger really was, and they ran out to tell the news to the disciples.
To discover that Jesus is alive is the turning point for every Christian. Henry Francis Lyte had experienced that revelation and felt the call to preach the gospel. Born in Scotland in 1793, he was ordained into the Church of England and went to serve the coastal village of Brixham. His faith grew strong although he was frail of body. Asthma and other lung disorders interfered with his ministry: eventually he was advised to leave the damp climate of his parish. But the thought of leaving the congregation he had served for twenty-four years grieved him. Before he even reached his new home in Italy, he died.
The parishioners in England grieved. They remembered their pastor's last Sunday with them. He had expressed his faith in Jesus Christ and his assurance of eternal life. His daughter has written: "In the evening of that same day [September 4, 1847] he placed in the hands of a near and dear relative the little hymn, 'Abide with Me,' with the air of his own composing, adapted to the words."
In the second stanza the theme quickly changes from the scene on the road to Emmaus with Jesus to the thought that life passes by swiftly. This is a reality for everyone. I recognize that each passing day moves me closer to that moment when "earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away."
The remainder of this prayer hymn is a beautiful testimony of what the Christian can expect when death becomes imminent. When the cross of Christ is held "before my closing eyes," I know that he will "shine through the gloom and point me to the skies."
0 God, thank you for this dimension of your love. We continue to abide in you, whether on earth or in heaven. Amen.
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Henry F. Lyte, 1847 (Luke 24:29)CHAPTER 3
All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name
"Signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Acts 4:30)
If the Christian had just one anthem of praise, this would be it. In every nation where it is sung, it speaks to the deep spiritual needs of all. Someone has said, "As long as there are Christians on earth, this hymn will continue to be sung, and after that—in heaven."
The composer of the hymn was Edward Perronet, who was born in Sundridge, England, in 1726. He was the son of a priest of the Church of England, and he, too, was ordained into that church. Young Perronet, however, felt the church cold and too formal, and began to work with two Anglican priests, John and Charles Wesley, who were experiencing the same struggle. They preached in the streets. Soon many people who were searching for a deeper faith gathered in the open air to hear the fiery evangelists.
The trio faced much persecution from those who disagreed with their ministry, sometimes even the threat of physical harm. John Wesley wrote in his diary: "Today Edward Perronet was thrown down and rolled in mud and mire."
But out of those times of distress came Perronet's powerful testimony of praise: "All hail the power of Jesus' name!" That same power flowed into the lives of true believers in the early church. Recorded in Acts 3 is the first miracle after Pentecost. The healing of the lame man at the temple caused an uproar from the Jewish leaders who watched the miracle. Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, said, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk" (Acts 3:6). Instantly, the man leaped to his feet. The rulers and elders of the Jews, fearing this message would spread as a result of this miracle, commanded the disciples "not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus" (Acts 4:18).
The disciples did not obey this order, but continued to preach in that powerful Name. The results are astounding, as the gospel message has spread to millions throughout the centuries.
Lord Jesus, we crown you Lord of all. Hallelujah. Amen.
All hail the power of Jesus' name!
Let angels prostrate fall;
bring forth the royal diadem,
and crown him Lord of all.
Bring forth the royal diadem,
and crown him Lord of all.
Edward Perronet, 1779; alt. by John Rippon, 1787CHAPTER 4
"And God is able to make all grace abound to you." (2 Cor. 9:8a, NIV)
Even the sound is sweet—grace, grace—it is amazing. Who wrote the words about grace that hundreds of years later are sung around the world?
He was just a little boy of seven when his mother died. Life in 1732 London, England, had been difficult for the young mother and her child. His father was a captain on a slave trading ship and was seldom with them. For those first seven years, the little boy was nurtured in the Christian faith because of his mother's loving guidance.
"Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Prov. 22:6, NIV). This describes the early education of John Newton, composer of the beloved hymn "Amazing Grace."
After his mother's death and several years of living with relatives, John joined his father aboard ship. Captain Newton was a different influence from what John had known in his formative years. Daily, John witnessed cruel and harsh treatment toward the natives of West Africa who had been forced from their homes and sold as slaves. He grew hard and cold in this environment, and became a sailor whose goal was power, his motivation greed.
There were years of this degrading life before John Newton experienced a major turning point. During a severe storm at sea, he recognized his inadequacy in the face of death. Fear gripped him and he prayed to be spared. The sea eventually calmed. John Newton's inner life also had a new calmness and peace as he began to care for those he had once despised. Eventually he abandoned the life of the slave-trading ship. Hearing God's call to ministry, he entered seminary and was ordained into the Church of England. When he was thirty-nine years old, he began his preaching and music ministry. Of the many hymns he wrote, "Amazing Grace" is the one favored by millions.
John Newton died at the age of eighty-two. Before he left this earth, he was heard to say, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior."
0 God, I gratefully receive your loving gift of pardon. It is amazing. Amen.
How sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
was blind, but now I see.
John Newton, 1779; st. 6 anon.CHAPTER 5
America the Beautiful
"Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD." (Ps. 33:12, NIV)
Our voices united in songs of patriotism at the close of the Fourth of July concert. Then the annual fireworks display began. But the distant strains of concert music lingered long in my heart even during the fireworks. One of my favorites, "America the Beautiful," never fails to lift my spirit. Heartfelt words express thankfulness that we live in a great and free country.
The poet, Katharine Lee Bates, chose to begin her poem by exclaiming, "O beautiful." With that opening, she unfolds many word pictures that capture the imagination.
While standing at the top of Pikes Peak near Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the summer of 1893, she was inspired to write this poem. In her journal she wrote: "It was there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country, that the opening lines of this text formed themselves in my mind."
Bates, who was on a teaching assignment for the summer, was a native of New England. Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, in 1859, the daughter of a minister, she began to write poetry during her childhood. Her education toward a teaching profession led her to Wellesley College.
Although she wrote this poem to describe the natural beauty of this land, she also recognized the needs of all people to live in unity, self-control, and nobility. She believed these great desires could result only from the guidance of God in individual lives.
The poem was filed away in her notes for ten years while she revised and reworked it. When she submitted it to the editor of the Boston Evening Transcript in 1904, it was published and received with wide acclaim.
America at its finest is embodied in this song that asks for God's grace. Katharine Bates described it best when she said: "We must match the greatness of our country with the goodness of personal, godly living. If only we could couple the daring of the Pilgrims with the moral teachings of Moses, we would have something in this country that no one could ever take from us."
Thankfully, we have not been in danger of losing America. But how safe are the American values of righteousness and unity? Daniel Webster once said, "Whatever makes people good Christians makes them good citizens."
O God, mend our every flaw. Confirm our souls in self-control and our liberty in law. Amen.
O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain;
for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,
and crown thy good with brotherhood
from sea to shining sea.
Katharine Lee Bates, 1904CHAPTER 6
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
"What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic. 6:8)
The music was good. The words were horrible. The song that was sung that day in the summer of 1861 was a symbol of bloodshed and hate. "John Brown's body lay amouldering in the grave" was typical of the horrors of the Civil War. John Brown desired freedom for the slaves. The Southern and Northern states were bitterly opposed and thousands lay dead before the war was over. The descriptive message of the song was a warning.
But to some people it was repulsive. One of those was Julia Ward Howe, who stood watching the soldiers march by as they sang this song. Her husband and their pastor stood with her. They all agreed that there needed to be something better for people to sing. The pastor, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, suggested to Howe that she write some "decent words for that tune."
She said she would try. Little did she know that in only a few hours inspiring words would come to her, and eventually to the world through publication. They fit the melody that the soldiers had sung.
We have the personal background of this song because of a journal entry: "I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, 'I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!' So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen.
... I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper."
From the first line to the end, I believe Julia Howe experienced the glory of the Lord. How else can we explain the speed with which she wrote, and the graphic images the song brings to mind? "The Lord is coming ... he is trampling ... his truth is marching.... He is sifting out the heart." She even reminds herself: "Be swift my soul to answer him!"
The story is told of Abraham Lincoln, who was so overjoyed when he heard this beautiful song at a political rally, he shouted out, "Sing it again!" The choir quickly fulfilled the request from the President and repeated this beautiful message: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
For more than a century, we have continued to be inspired by this unforgettable melody with its words of triumph.
Lord, you were born "across the sea" and also in me. I behold your glory. Amen.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes
of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on.
Refrain: Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
Julia Ward Howe, 1861, sts. 1-4; st. 5, anon.CHAPTER 7
Beneath the Cross of Jesus
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing." (1 Cor. 1:18a, NIV)
Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane was raised in the small village of Melrose, among the rolling hills of Scotland. She was born in Edinburgh in 1830. Frail and sickly most of her life, Elizabeth was blessed with a loving spirit and a cheerful disposition, which inspired her village friends to give her an endearing nickname, "the sunbeam."
Elizabeth and her sisters helped the needy in their village. She did what she could within her limitations. A devoted student of the Bible, she expressed her faith in the form of poetry; her testimony is one of enduring strength.
Excerpted from 52 Hymn Story Devotions by Lucy Neeley Adams. Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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