Responsively Yours: Gospel Hymns From Women
July-August Response Magazine
by Joyce D. Sohl
Hidden away in your attic or closet you may find an old hymnal. It could be a hymnal from one of the predecessor denominations of The United Methodist Church or a hymnal used in the opening exercises of Sunday school. If you are lucky, you might even find a Gospel hymnal used in revivals in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries.
Not only are these hymnals often hidden away in our homes and churches, but hidden within each hymnal are hymns written by dedicated laywomen. Women hymn writers came into their own in the writing of Gospel hymns. Some say 25-30 percent of all Gospel hymns were written by women.
The Gospel hymn primarily developed in the urban revivals led by Dwight L. Moody, D.W. Whittle and later, Billy Sunday. Each of these revival preachers had as part of their team a song leader who selected songs, sometimes wrote them and led the singing for the services. Philip Bliss worked with D.W. Whittle; Ira Sankey with Dwight Moody; and Homer Rodeheaver with Billy Sunday.
These men found hymns in poetry collections, newspapers and religious flyers, and family publications. Sometimes they set the words to music themselves or they found others to do so. They also borrowed music from the camp meetings of the early 19th century, the Sunday-school movement and spirituals.
Writing Gospel hymns was an acceptable way for educated women to use their skills. They were not allowed to preach and their writings were considered unsuitable for denominational hymnals. The women hymn writers were homemakers, teachers or employed in other professions. They were often active in the anti-slavery or prohibition movements and were members of the early missionary societies. During this time, home, family and women were held in high regard, and women worked hard to save the world and their families. The poetry they wrote convinced many a sinner to accept Jesus as Savior.
Gospel hymns appealed to people from the working classes, many of whom were first-generation immigrants. The message was simple and personal using easily understood metaphors. It was often about salvation and a relationship with Jesus, and emphasized a response to Jesus, a trust in Jesus and a knowledge that heaven was the ultimate goal. The music was singable with catchy tunes and rhythms. The words and music of Gospel hymns made religion a matter of the heart as well as the head since the hymns often appealed to the emotions.
These hymns have raised strong responses both for and against them. Some feel Gospel hymns are too personal with too much emphasis on Jesus as deity and not as human. They say they ignore the Christian life as that of disciples putting too much emphasis on heaven. Others see such hymns as a strong and viable tool of evangelism -- personal, appealing expressions of faith that bring the faith alive to people through images they understand.
Some Gospel hymns are better than others. I choose to analyze the theology and teachings of each hymn, learn about the writer, discover the story of the hymn, and determine its biblical basis and message for today.
Fanny Crosby (1823-1915) is the best known of the women hymn writers. She wrote more than 8,500 hymns. She was blind from early infancy, attended the New York School for the Blind and also taught at the school as an adult. She was a Methodist; 29 of her hymns have been included in one or more of the official Methodist-related hymnals starting with the 1882 hymnal of the Evangelical Church. The bulk of her hymns have been published in Gospel and Sunday-school hymnals. She wrote hymns about:
· Praising God: ATo God Be the Glory@;
· Salvation: AJesus is Calling@;
· Jesus: AJesus, Keep Me Near the Cross@;
· Prayer: A>Tis the Blessed Hour of Prayer@; and
· Faith and assurance: ABlessed Assurance.@
Eliza E. Hewitt (1851-1920) was another well-known Gospel-hymn writer. She was a Presbyterian who lived in Philadelphia, Pa., all her life. She wrote Sunday-school materials and poetry for children and served as the superintendent of the primary department in her church. She is often identified in the early hymnals as E.E. Hewitt, so many have missed the fact that this writer was a woman. Among her known hymns are:
· @Stepping in the Light@;
· AWill There Be Any Stars in My Crown?@
· AMore About Jesus@; and
· AWhen We All Get to Heaven,@ which is in the current United Methodist Hymnal.
Elizabeth C. Clephane (1830-1869), whose poetry was published anonymously after her death, wrote fewer hymns than Fanny Crosby or Eliza E. Hewitt. She lived in Scotland, worked among the poor and was a member of the Free Church of Scotland. Her hymn AThe Ninety and Nine@ was found by Ira Sankey in 1874 in a newspaper. He set the words to music and it immediately became a popular hymn in the Moody revivals.
Miss Clephane’s sister was at the service the night the hymn was introduced and was able to identify the writer. ABeneath the Cross of Jesus@ is Miss Clephane=s other known hymn. It is still sung during Lent and Holy Week.
You can identify women writers in your old hymnals. It’s a good activity for a long summer evening -- one that can enrich your spiritual life. Share your findings with your family and friends and sing with enthusiasm these old songs of the faith.
Joyce D. Sohl
Deputy General Secretary