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Ever More Than Words Alone Can Tell

By August 25, 2017 8 Comments

His foundation is in the holy mountains.

      The LORD loves the gates of Zion
More than all the other dwelling places of Jacob.

      Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.

I’m sure I haven’t sung the old hymn for years, but its sweet familiarity came back to me in a Nano-second. It’s one of many that originated in a partnership between William Cowper and John Newton–that’s John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame, the slave-trader who walked away from a life he came to despise after his abiding conversion to the Christian faith. It was Newton who wrote “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” the lyric aboard the musical line playing in my ear the moment my wife, Barbara, read the words of the psalm.

I’m almost 70. Nostalgia comes to me startlingly these days, as if unbound.  I’ll admit it: sometimes the old things ring so warmly I give them play, choosing to stay for a time in the world of the memories. Thus, for several minutes I had no idea what she was reading for our devotions that night because I was singing “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” beautifully, I might add, the kind of old hymn replayed on some imaginary organ with a reverence that’s actually a hair spiteful. After all, so many worship services we attend strum music I don’t know and don’t care to learn. Truth be told, for a delightful moment, I was in the church I attended as a boy, the whole sainted congregation singing “Glorious Things.” Nostalgia is as inviting these days as it is debilitating. 

But then, there are fine reasons to honor that old hymn. John Newton, who late in life described his slave-trading days as “a business at which my heart now shudders,” got together with Cowper to pen a number of hymns, in part, history tells us, as a means Newton dreamed up to keep his friend Cowper sane, literally. Think of “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” as therapy because it was, or so the story goes. 

And then there’s its presumptuous theological underpinnings. I’m told a score of hymnbooks don’t use the final stanza of “Glorious Things” because of its shameless Calvinism. Me?–I’ve sung it so often, I can recite it: 

Saviour, if of Zion’s city
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in Thy name:
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show:
Solid joys and lasting treasure,
None but Zion’s children know.

What I’m saying is, there are good reasons that old hymn came out of hiding when my wife read verse 3 of Psalm 87. I won’t apologize for listening.

But in public I’ll probably never sing that old hymn again. It’s traditional musical setting couldn’t be more beautiful, a melody created by Frans Joseph Hadyn from an Austrian folk tune so beloved the melody became the national anthem of Austria, and, eventually, Germany, the Third Reich, in fact. So the Nazis loved that music too, incorporating into their own nationalistic worship. When Hadyn rang soulfully from beneath those swastika banners, its fighting men teared up to sing it surely, but also simply to hear it sung.

And thus “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” became impossible for others to sing or even hear. Newton’s words have been put into other musical settings, but what I heard in my memory when my wife read Psalm 87:3 was John Newton, William Cowper, and Franz Joseph Hadyn. No doubt. 

That there’s meaning in words sometimes needs remembering these days, but there’s also great meaning in our own libraries of associations. There’s Psalm 87:3, there’s John Newton and William Cowper and Franz Joseph Hadyn, and there are jackboots and SS officers–all of that packed in a hymn from my boyhood church that will never, ever leave my consciousness, a musical line that’s far more than the sum of its parts or the definitions of its words. 

In just a moment, my whole consciousness got high-jacked by nostalgia that turned, a moment later, to disgruntlement–“why don’t we sing great old hymns like that anymore?”

And then, just a handful of seconds later, I couldn’t help remembering men and women, some of them good friends, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Holland. Once again, I heard them claim with fists clenched how they could not, even if they knew better, sing that damned German anthem when they remembered what so many of them could not forget, even if they wished to.

There’s more to life than meets the eye, ever more than words alone can tell. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Och, ja! It all comes along.

  • Thank you–so beautiful!

  • June Huissen says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article and a trip down memory lane. I belong to an intercity church in GR, MI that had a huge influx of Dutch immigrants after WWII. We soon stopped singing Glorious Things to Thee Have Spoken out of the Blue Psalter at the request of some of our new members. BUT the tune always comes back.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Yes and yes. My chosen church for 50 years has compelling reasons for me to attend, but it does not have pipe organ, nor does it have regular singing from the psalms and hymns I grew up with. I grieve my losses, and try to stay focused on the positive. But when I read this piece I am reminded sharply of how deeply the old music is embedded in my heart and soul and how there’s nothing that quite replaces it.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thanks, Jim. Another thoughtful article. Remarkable–how how our contexts change the way we hear and experience the same reality. I’m holding on my to my good and very positive memories of this solid hymn,. I am glad you helped me to do so.

  • Henry Baron says:

    I, too, love that Hayden melody; even the Nazis couldn’t steal that from me. (And my memories of the Nazis are still pretty painful, as this talk tells you:
    But thanks, Jim, of reminding me to include Glorious Things in our next Sunday night sing group meeting selections; we’ve been singing from red, blue, and gray hymnbooks for the last 56 years.

  • Fred Wind says:

    Ran across this in my computer. Only a couple of years late, but thanks for your wonderful writings!

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