Responsively Yours: Gospel Hymns From Women July-August Response Magazine
Joyce D. Sohl
Hidden away in your attic or closet you may find an old hymnal
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
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
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
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.@
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
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
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.