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The Midweek Hymn: His Eye is on the Sparrow


SOMETHING a bit different this week. His Eye is on the Sparrow is a Gospel hymn mainly associated with black singers, but it was the work of two white people.

The lyrics were written in 1905 by Canadian-American Civilla Durfee Martin (1866-1948). She was born in Nova Scotia and lived most of her life in Atlanta. She was a teacher who married Walter Stillman Martin, a Baptist minister. She gave up her job to travel with him in his evangelistic work, though frail health meant she had to stay at home much of the time. She posted the lyrics to Charles H Gabriel (1856-1932), who worked for a gospel music publisher in Chicago. Gabriel wrote between 7,000 and 8,000 tunes using his own name and the pseudonyms Charlotte G Homer, H A Henry and S B Jackson.

Civilla Martin said of her inspiration to write the song: ‘Early in the spring of 1905, my husband and I were sojourning in Elmira, New York. We contracted a deep friendship for a couple by the name of Mr and Mrs Doolittle – true saints of God. Mrs Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheel chair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them for the secret of it. Mrs Doolittle’s reply was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr Martin and me. The hymn His Eye is on the Sparrow was the outcome of that experience.’

Mrs Doolittle’s words were probably inspired by Matthew 10:29-31: ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.’ (This verse was also the basis of the title of the book Sold for a Farthing, which I wrote about here.)

These are the words of the hymn:

1 Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
and long for heaven and home,
when Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is he:
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me;
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, (I’m happy)
I sing because I’m free, (I’m free)
for his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

2 ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’
his tender word I hear,
and resting on his goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears;
though by the path he leadeth
but one step I may see:
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me;
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me. [Refrain]

3 Whenever I am tempted,
whenever clouds arise,
when song gives place to sighing,
when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to him;
from care he sets me free:
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me;
his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me. [Refrain]

Actress and singer Ethel Waters sang the hymn in the 1950 stage play of the Carson McCullers novel The Member of the Wedding, and in the 1952 film. This video tells how the song came to be included in the play, and ends with Waters’s performance in the film.

Waters entitled her first volume of autobiography His Eye is on the Sparrow.

Ethel Waters was admired by Mahalia Jackson, who chose His Eye is on the Sparrow as the title of a nationally syndicated radio show radio show which she and her long-time accompanist Mildred Falls co-hosted with writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel from 1954. Jackson’s 1958 recording of the song was honoured with a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2010.

His Eye is on the Sparrow featured in the 1993 film Sister Act 2:

Finally, here is a traditional-style performance from George Beverley Shea.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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