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A song without a story

William Jennings Bryan knew how to deliver a speech, a talent he picked it up as a kid and ran with, the youngest man ever to be nominated for President. “The Great Commoner,” some called him, because he knew exactly which keys to hit when speaking to ordinary folks. During the election of 1896, he basically originated the “stump speech,” delivered it glowingly across the nation. Historians estimate he spoke to as many as five million people–no cameras, no video, no mikes. He just laid it out there, and people went home nodding.

William Jennings Bryan once claimed that the best preacher he’d ever heard was a man named Henry Clay Morrison, a Methodist circuit rider, a prim-looking Virginian who parted his soft, white hair down the middle. At an old-time tent revival, Henry Clay Morrison was converted to faith in Jesus when he was 13 and became a licensed man of the cloth before he reached his 19th birthday. Listen to this: William Jennings Bryan, who lit up crowds as if angels had loosed his tongue, once called Henry Clay Morrison ” “the greatest pulpit orator on the American continent.” That’s what some might call “high praise.”

Morrison claimed he found Jesus at Boyd’s Creek Meetinghouse near Glasgow, Kentucky. In case you’d like to visit, don’t. It’s long gone. Still, to be able to say that you were just 13 years old when you found the Lord at the Boyd’s Creek Meetinghouse–that’d be rich, don’t you think?

Anyway, one night at a rip-roaring tent meeting, Henry Clay Morrison, probably unbeknownst to him or William Jennings Bryan, spoke to the heart of a man named Thomas Obadiah Chisholm, age 27, another Virginian, a teacher, just another face in the crowd that night, an ordinary guy aboard a wooden bench in a circus tent revival where Morrison himself got saved some decades before.

Thomas Obadiah Chisholm fancied himself a poet–and was. He often claimed his most famous hymn text had no dramatic story behind it, nothing much at all really. He just sort of wrote it. But then it seems there wasn’t much drama in his life either. Farm kid, teacher, editor, office manager, preacher, farmer again, and life insurance salesman, his life story seems–how might we say it–“unsettled.” Through it all, he kept writing poems, 1200 of them throughout his life, many of them hymn texts. 

One of those texts I may have sung a thousand times. When Dad-in-law lived in the Home, most every Sunday his daughter and I would visit during chapel time to take Dad down to hear some man or woman deliver the afternoon goods. To say none of those speakers were William Jennings Bryan or Henry Clay Morrison is not to denigrate what they did: bringing joy to a room full of folks running through their last stanzas takes more juice than a stump speech.

Each week, another church would bring the Word, and each week some church committee would try to figure out what their service at the home might look like–who would play the piano and what would they sing with the old folks. More often than not, some committee member would say “Oh, gracious–how about ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’ Those old folks love ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.'” The others would assent, which meant that the next Sunday the old folks would sing it again. And again. And again. And, two weeks later, again.

Dad’s been gone now for more than a few years. We no longer attend Sunday chapel at the Home, probably wouldn’t know any of the residents. There’s only one way people leave. So it isn’t often we sing Thomas Obadiah Chisholm’s most famous hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” When I consider the old days at the Home, I can’t help remembering what seemed a broken record. When we do sing it today, my ordinary ornery self says, “Here we go again.” 

So, we sang it again a few nights ago at the 50th birthday party of our congregation, as apropos that night as the old hymn was at any of those renditions at the Home. I have to admit it, but that night it felt good, once again, to go through the familiar lines Pastor Chisholm scribbled out on a sheet of paper 101 years ago. 

This time, when I looked down the row, I couldn’t help seeing, towards the end, a widow, a woman known as someone specially blessed with sincere piety, someone ever leaning on the promises of God. She wasn’t singing, and I couldn’t help but think I knew why, because when I saw her lips tighten I stopped singing too, not because that old hymn is tired but because His faithfulness isn’t. 

That’s what I saw written on her face, her mouth closed in a half-smile. That’s what I saw when we sang Chisholm’s old standard, a song, he used to say, without a story. 

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.


  • RZ says:

    Speaking of great writers……. We needed this shot of unifying hope!

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    I agree with RZ, Jim. Thanks for renewing this old hymn’s power by telling its story.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    The lyrics are strong and direct, almost simple, and in the 2nd person, addressed to God, and Runyan’s tune is a perfect match.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    “Strength for today and bright hopes for tomorrow” has been my family mantra for four generations, along with Blessed Assurance—Fanny Crosby, now there’s a prolific poet also!
    Thanks for the story, JS.

  • Jan says:

    Having played this hymn at countless funerals over the course of my lifetime, my “ordinary ornery self” thought exactly as yours when faced with one more time. It is often the hymn sung at Grandparents Day for the old folks (myself included) because, I’m assuming, the planners are thinking that is the one we want to sing. Retirement has given me better perspective, I don’t wince anymore, but am coming to fully embrace this beautiful testamony to “morning by morning new mercies I see”.

  • Jack Ridl says:

    No stump speech/tent meeting melodrama here. Instead the quiet, gentle, unassuming and mesmerizing storyteller who leaves us ever remembering the silence of the widow at the end of the row.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    And now this cherished old hymn has a story. Thank you, Jim.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Yes, that hymn has a story for many of us.
    When I sing it now, this 90 year-old son sees his mom sitting in the pew on a Sunday morning in Lynden, watching and listening to her five children singing Great Is Thy Faithfulness to her and her church family.
    It was her 80th birthday, and her face reflected the faith that had through all her sorrows remembered “Morning by morning new mercies I see.”

  • Evonne Bierlink says:

    Love this. Thankyou Mr Schaap and looking forward to a new book of yours.
    Evonne B.

  • Fred Wind says:

    I’m hitting “Like”.

  • Barb Whalen says:

    When I hear “ Great is thy Faithfulness “ I hear my farmer father singing this while working in the fields. He had a beautiful voice and was heard by the neighbors. Singing praise and witnessing to his friends. Dad died way too young. Farming is a dangerous occupation. I am a pianist – I have many arrangements of that song. My latest version is jazz. I imagine my father listening in approval. He bought me my first piano. As a surprise he had a dealer from Worthington drive to Mpls with 3 pianos in a trailer so I could pick the one I wanted. My dad loved to hear me play. I praise God for the memories and that song!

  • Suzanne Van Engen says:

    Beautiful. That is a fascinating history of that loved hymn. The paragraph about attending chapel on Sunday afternoons with your dad-in-law brought back poignant memories of attending same type of services with my mother. And, we sang that hymn. I had the same feelings – here we go again. Bt as I get older those words are powerful and I sing them with a new reverence. Thanks for your writings.

  • Betty says:

    So many memories of the Home. Thank you for prompting me to take my own trip down memory lane, cherishing all those years ago. And today too. God’s faithfulness runs deep.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you for this. I loved it … as someone who has “preached” a time or two in our local nursing home. You captured something so real here. Faith in faithful God throughout generations.

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