The Birth of a Great Hymn

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Jan 14, 2012

"A good hymn should be like a good prayer - simple, real, earnest and reverent."
William Walshman

How I love great hymns. I grew up on them. I can remember sitting with my parents and my siblings in the Midway Church of the Brethren just outside Lebanon, PA listening to the congregation and choir fill that old sanctuary with great hymns. 

To this day when I hear certain hymns my heart catapults back a half a century or more to those life forming experiences. Over the years, the old hymns of the church have fed my soul. They still do today. I also love the stories which go behind the old hymns. Here is one you might enjoy, too.

Back in 1932, I was a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago's south side. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis where I was to be a featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn't want to go; Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child, but a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie goodbye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66. 

However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety of leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. 

I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music. 

The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope.... Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED. 

People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home... All I could hear on the other end was "Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead." 

When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. 

For days I closeted myself. I struggled with what God was doing in my life. Gradually I heard His words of assurance and personal care. 

From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him. But still I was lost in grief. Everyone was kind to me, especially one friend. The following Saturday evening he took me up to Maloney's Poro College, a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. 

I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys. Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody. Once in my head they just seemed to fall into place: "Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn, through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home." The Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power. 

And who was that songwriter? He was Tommy Dorsey, the music director of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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