Hymn of the week: I will sing the wondrous story

‘I will sing the wondrous story’ was written by Baptist pastor Francis H. Rowley. In his own words:

I was minister of the First Baptist Church of North Adams [Massachusetts] at the time the hymn was written in 1886, as nearly as I can remember. The church and the community were experiencing a period of unusual interest in religious matters, and I was as­sist­ed by a remarkable young singer named Peter Bilhorn. One night after the close of the service he said, “Why don’t you write a hymn for me to set to music?” During the night these most unpretentious and wholly unworthy verses came to me. (Quoted on cyberhymnal.org)

The following year Rowley’s words, set to Bilhorn’s music, were published in Ira Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos. Sankey made a number of unauthorised alterations to the words, with the result that the hymn is found today in a number of different versions. After its publication by Sankey the hymn became known on both sides of the Atlantic, as Rowley himself discovered:

Some years ago as I was going down a London street one night about eleven o’clock, I discovered ahead of me a group of Salvation Army people holding a service, and as I came nearer to them it occurred to me that the hymn they were singing was familiar. Then it dawned upon me that it was this one.

In Britain, Bilhorn’s music has been completedly displaced by two Welsh hymn tunes: Calon Lan and Hyfrydol. In some hymnals (for example, Songs of Fellowship) the refrain has been reduced to a sixth verse, thus allowing the entire hymn to be sung as three eight-line verses.

Rowley’s hymn is particularly appropriate for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time year C, when the Gospel reading is Luke 15:1-10 (the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin). The first of these parables is explicitly mentioned in the second verse.

Below is the version of the hymn as found in Hymns and Psalms. This follows Rowley’s original hymn more closely than most other versions found on the internet.

I will sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
How he left the realms of glory
For the cross on Calvary:

Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
Sing it with his saints in glory,
Gathered by the crystal sea.

I was lost; but Jesus found me,
Found the sheep that went astray,
Raised me up, and gently led me
Back into the narrow way:

Faint was I, and fears possessed me,
Bruised was I from many a fall;
Hope was gone, and shame distressed me;
But his love has pardoned all:

Days of darkness still come o’er me;
Sorrow’s paths I often tread;
But the Saviour still is with me,
By his hand I’m safely led:

He will keep me till the river
Rolls its waters at my feet;
Then he’ll bear me safely over,
Where the loved ones I shall meet:

Francis H. Rowley (1854-1952)

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About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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