THIS week’s choice is a request from our reader ‘Starshiptrooper’. It is based on one of the saddest stories of the Bible, yet it is one of the most hopeful hymns of the 20th century.
In 589 BC, the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II laid siege to Jerusalem, and for many months the inhabitants suffered terrible privations. In either 587 or 586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar broke through Jerusalem’s walls and conquered the city. The Babylonian general Nebuzaraddan was sent to complete its destruction. Jerusalem was plundered and razed, and Solomon’s Temple was destroyed. Most of the elite were taken into captivity in Babylon. Some people were permitted to remain to tend the land.
The heart was torn out of the community and the people were desperate. Yet one of their number, the prophet Jeremiah, found a reason for hope. In Lamentations 3:22-23 he wrote: ‘It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness’ (King James Bible).
This is the theme of Great is Thy Faithfulness. The words were written by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960) who was born in a log cabin on a small farm in Franklin, Kentucky. He and his older brother helped their father in the fields and attended a country school. Neither boy received an education beyond the elementary level. Despite this, Thomas became the school’s teacher when he was 16. He was already trying his hand at poetry and six years later his proficiency with words led his appointment as associate editor of his hometown weekly newspaper, The Franklin Favorite.
In 1893, when he was 27, Chisholm had a Christian conversion experience during a revival in Franklin led by the evangelist Dr Henry Clay Morrison. Later Dr Morrison offered him the job of editor of his publication, The Pentecostal Herald. This meant leaving his country community for the much larger town of Louisville. Over the years he felt drawn to the church and was ordained a Methodist minister in 1903, when he was 37, and was appointed to a small church in Scottsville, Kentucky. The same year he married Catherine Vandervere; they had two daughters.
However Chisholm was not in good health and after only a year of ministry he resigned. The couple moved to a small farm in Winona Lake, Indiana, and Chisholm became a life insurance agent. Twelve years later, in 1916, the family moved to Vineland, New Jersey, where Chisholm worked for another insurance firm.
He wrote Great is Thy Faithfulness in 1923, when he was 57. These are the words:
1 Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;
as thou hast been thou forever wilt be.
Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see:
all I have needed thy hand hath provided
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
2 Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
join with all nature in manifold witness
to thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love. [Refrain]
3 Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside! [Refrain]
He sent it among a collection of poems to a friend and fellow Methodist minister William Runyan, (1870–1957) a composer who worked for a Christian music publisher. It caught his attention and he wrote a melody for it, which he named Faithfulness.
William Marion Runyan was born in Marion, New York, the son of a Methodist minister. Runyan showed an interest in music when very young, and by the age of 12 often served as church organist.
He was a professor and preacher at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas, for a period and his children attended the university. His descendants endowed ‘The Rev William M Runyan Memorial Scholarship’ at Baker University with the royalties from Faithfulness.
The hymn became a favourite of Dr William Henry Houghton, president of Moody Bible Institute. When a young soloist, George Beverly Shea, sang a selection of hymns on the Moody radio station, Great Is Thy Faithfulness was among them
This is a later recording by George Beverly Shea:
Some years later, evangelist Billy Graham invited Shea to join his ministry, singing at his rallies all over the world. Great is Thy Faithfulness was a frequent choice.
Despite his limited education, Chisholm wrote more than 1,200 poems over his lifetime, 800 of which were published. He retired in 1953, at the age of 87, and lived in a Methodist Home for the Aged in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. He continued writing poems till his death at the age of 94.
I thought this guitar tutorial highlighted the beauty of the melody:
Here is a lovely performance with a solo by Aled Jones:
Audre, this one’s for you: