Chapter 12 Hymns That Have Helped

Wanderers across the wilderness of life have told how they have been helped and cheered, at one time or another, by some almost forgotten hymn, which has been to them a well of refreshing, and the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Such remarkable incidents are indeed worthy of recounting, testifying as they do, to the experience of the deeper matters of the soul.

How the singing of “Saviour, breathe an evening blessing,” not only helped but stimulated confidence, was told by one who passed through the night of peril. During the Boxer outbreak in China, when many of the Lord’s servants were cruelly put to death, a company of beleaguered missionaries gathered together at the close of a day through which they had lived in constant fear lest they should have to suffer the fate of so many of their fellow labourers. Separated from home and friends, facing death in a far off land, and full of tenderest feelings, they lifted up their hearts in song:

“Though destruction walk around us,
Though the arrows past us fly;
Angel guards from Thee surround us:
We are safe if Thou art nigh.”

“Out of the storm,” writes Miss Helen Knox Strain, one of the missionaries present that night, “each soul, renewing its strength, mounted up with wings as eagles and found peace in the secret of His presence. We went through the hymn until we came to the last verse, ‘Should swift death this night o’ertake us.’ We stopped at that line, and thought we would rest in the promise that the angel of the Lord would protect us. And so it proved.”

In humble life, our hymns are not without their beams of sunshine. Passing through a narrow alley one day, the attention of a mission worker was attracted by a woman’s voice in cheerful song. The words of the refrain upon which she lingered seemed strangely out of place in such squalid surroundings. She sang:

“And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story, ‘Saved by grace!’”

Looking toward the place from whence the song came, he saw a poor old woman, down on her knees, scrubbing the doorstep of her humble dwelling. In a moment, that sweet song took a depth and beauty of meaning, and a charm unimagined before. That poor old woman, in her weary toil, was a “daughter of the King,” and heir of eternal glory, though for a short time away from her heavenly home. What she sang, while she scrubbed, was to her a glorious anticipation, and the sunshine of her soul burst forth in the song of her heart.

“I will gladly take my turn in testifying,” once wrote the late Mr. W. T. Stead, “conscious though I am that the hymn which helped me most can lay no claim to pre-eminent merit as poetry. It is Newton’s hymn which begins, ‘Begone unbelief.’ I can remember my mother singing it when I was a tiny boy, barely able to see over the book-ledge in the minister’s pew; and to this day, whenever I am in doleful dumps and the stars in their courses appear to be fighting against me, that one doggerel verse comes back clear as a blackbird’s note through the morning mist:

“His love, in time past,
Forbids me to think
He’ll leave me at last
In trouble to sink;
Each sweet Ebenezer
I have in review,
Confirms His good pleasure
To help me quite through.”

The rhyme is bad enough, no doubt; the logic may or may not be rational; but the verse as it is, with all its shortcomings, has been as a lifebuoy, keeping my head above the waves when the sea raged and was tempestuous, and when all else failed.” It was John Newton, the converted slave dealer, who wrote these lines away back about the middle of the eighteenth century.

It is rarely that a circumstance, so remarkable as the following, attends the casual recital of a hymn, for, though it brought the desired joy and consolation to the heart of one individual, it had somewhat the reverse effect on the conscience of another. In the old coaching days, a lady was seated on the outside of a stage-coach reading. During the journey she had been intently engaged over one particular page of a little book which she consulted from time to time, with evident enjoyment. Turning to her fellow passenger, a gentleman, who she perceived was well acquainted, with the subject of religion, she held the open page towards him, and pointing to the hymn she had been reading, asked his opinion of it. He glanced at the first few lines:

“Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace:
Streams of mercy never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.”

He read no further, and turning away, waived the subject, endeavouring to direct the lady’s attention to some other topic. She, however, ventured another appeal, describing the great benefits she had derived from the hymn, and expressing her strong admiration of its sentiments. At length, overcome beyond the power of controlling his feelings, the stranger burst into tears. “Madam,” he said, “I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousands worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I then had.” The stranger was none other than Robert Robinson, who, sad to relate, had fallen on evil days.

Born in 1735 of lowly parents, his widowed mother sent the boy to London to learn the trade of barber. Here he came under the influence of George Whitfield, the eminent preacher, was converted, and began to study for the ministry. At the age of twenty-five he was called to the pastorate of the Baptist Church at Cambridge, where he attained great popularity. In later years he lapsed into careless ways, indulging in frivolous habits. Poor Robinson ran a zigzag course to the end of his days and died suddenly on June 9th, 1790.

From time to time remarkable stories reach me of the wonderful influence one hymn or other has had upon many of the inmates of our large prisons. In contrast to this, one cannot but be amazed at the sheer incongruity exhibited in one particular instance, as shown in the following, which is taken from the annual report of the Howard Association, published a few years ago. Mr. Thomas Holmes contributes an article on Sunday in a London Prison. He makes reference to the vesper hymn sung by prisoners at an afternoon service he was conducting. “There were,” he says, “those thousand men, locked, bolted and barred in prison, with strong warders to keep guard over them; there they were on their knees singing a vesper;

‘Lord, keep us safe this night,
Secure from all our fears,
May angels guard us while we sleep,
Till morning light appears.’

I could have called out—I almost did—‘Locks, bolts and bars will keep you safe, and your warders will watch over you!’ “It seems very strange to me,” he continues, “that in many of our prisons the one and only vesper hymn selected for the prisoners to sing should be this one.”

How a hymn, heard at an unexpected moment and under strange circumstances, helped in a marvellous way, was related to me quite recently by an intimate friend of the subject of the story. He was a Christian worker and had recently lost two sons, both fine young men. One died very suddenly, and a short time afterwards the other was seriously injured in a motor accident. The young man was conveyed to hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries. His father stood by the bedside watching the last struggles ere life left that young body, and when all was over he seemed to give way to bitterness of heart and rebellion against God for the great affliction which had come upon him. Leaving the ward, he went into an adjoining room where his wife waited for him. As he entered, his wife, realising their son had passed away, but ignorant as to her husband’s bitter thoughts, said to him, “Mattha, there’s a young fellow doon there in the street whistling ‘Will your anchor hold?’” The bereaved father broke down at the significant words of his wife, and could only say, “Weel, the storm is very high just now.” And indeed it was. But he afterwards confessed that the strains of that hymn, whistled by a young plumber going to work in the early morning, wafted to the top storey of the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, was the means of overcoming the evil of doubt and placing faith in the sure Anchor, Christ Jesus.

Under somewhat similar circumstances, “Art thou weary?” was the means of bringing peace and rest to a burdened soul. A young woman who had formerly been a Roman Catholic, was brought to the knowledge of the Saviour, and became a faithful and consistent Christian. Some time after, she was laid aside with a serious illness, and became very depressed in spirit. On one occasion when she had been left alone for the night, a cloud came over her spirit, the sense of loneliness grew upon her and she seemed forsaken of God. All looked so black that she dreaded the coming of the long lone night. Just then, the silence of the night was broken by the sound of footsteps on the stone flags of the pavement outside. A man, wearing the clogs of the factory worker was coming along. His soul was full of joy. As he approached the house where the sufferer lay awake, he suddenly raised his voice in song:

“Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
‘Come to Me,’ saith One; ‘and coming,
Be at rest!’”

The herald of peace went on his way singing the song of his heart, little dreaming that deep down in the heart of a young woman went the words “Be at rest!” And as she listened to the message of song borne to her in that silent hour of the night, she cast herself upon the Lord. The sun had pierced the dark clouds, peace and rest filled her heart, and she doubted no more.

A touching narrative is related by a worker at the Evangelistic Services held in Glasgow by Major Whittle and Mr. James McGranahan, reminiscent of those stirring days in the early eighties. The hymn which wrought so great an impression, as recorded in the following incident, was written by Ellen M. H. Gates. Here is the first verse:

“Oh, the clanging bells of Time!
Night and day they never cease;
We are wearied with their chime,
For they do not bring us peace;
And we hush our breath to hear,
And we strain our eyes to see,
If thy shores are drawing near:
Eternity! Eternity!”

The narrator observed in Bethany Hall, one Lord’s Day evening, an old fellow-workman of his. Knowing that he had been a very irreligious man, he determined to call at the workshop to have a word with his old mate. A day to two later when he called upon John, he soon found that something was working in his mind altogether different from the old things. “Look here,” said John, “I didna think there was muckle truth in religion, but I’m a wee bit staggered aboot it jist noo! “

“I was glad to see you in the Hall,” said his friend; “but tell me what has staggered you.”

“Weel, ye see, I’ve a sister, ye ken, an’ a wee while ago she was hearing aboot the meetin’s in Bethany Hall. So somehow she an’ her companion—jist like herseP, but gey fond o’ singin’—gaed to the meetin’. Aweel, when she cam’ hame, she jist put past her things, an’ sat doon by the fire, nae speakin’ a word. Syne, the wife noticed her een were fu’ o’ tears. ‘What’s the maitter, Aggie?’ Nae answer. ‘Gang tae bed, there’s a guid lass; ye’ll hae to be up sune the morn’.’ The tears cam’ faster. ‘Oh, Mary, I canna, I canna gang to bed. I’ve been hearin’ a hymn the nicht I’ll niver forget. Oh, I seem to hear the sound o’ bells from somewhere, callin’ “Eternity! Eternity!” Oh, I’m gaun into Eternity; an’ oh, how dark it is jist noo! Gang to my bed! Na; I’ll gang to my knees.’ An’ so she did. The wife tauld me this,” continued John, “an I gaed ben awhile, but I only glowered at her. Weel, the next night she gaed again, an’ she sune came hame wi’ her companion, an’ they baith seemed sae glad, sae happy the gither, an’ talked aboot ‘I am the Door; by Me if any man enter in he shall be saved.’ They declared they had entered in. Anyhow, they were happy. Next nicht the wife gaed tae, an’ noo the hale hoose is like a kirk! I’ve been gaun, an’ I want tae ken mair aboot these things; so I an’ Wullie here, are comin’ on Sabbath nicht, an’ Aggie an’ some mair o’ her companions; an’ mither an’ me would like tae hear that song Aggie heard.”

In his interesting little book on the subject of “Hymns that have helped,” the late Mr. Stead gives a remarkable testimony, received from a Scotsman, relating to “Lead, kindly Light.” “My spiritual experience has been varied,” he writes, “I was baptised in the Roman Catholic church, brought up in the Congregational Independant, and at length I was fascinated by the history, energy, and enthusiasm of the Wesleyans. I was at one time a local preacher in that body with a view to the ministry. But my fervid fit of exaltation was evoked with the dusty facts of life, and smouldered down into a dry indifference. I sought nourishment in secularism and agnosticism, but found none. I was in the slough of despond, at the centre of indifference, with the everlasting NO on my lips, when ‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,’ came to my soul like the voice of angels. Wandering in the wilderness, ‘O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent,’ Newman’s hymn was to me a green oasis, a healing spring, the shadow of a great rock. Through the light and power of God I was led to light and love in Christ in a way I had never before known or experienced.”

From the same source we cull a striking testimony of the wonderful help and consolation received from an old-fashioned hymn, by a working man. Speaking of his experience, he says he passed through a period of much tribulation, seeking peace and finding none: “I thought I had done my best, but still that was unsatisfactory. Something always seemed to be kept back; something that ought to have come out and did not, or rather, perhaps I should say that was not fully understood by the one to whom it was told. I had no doubt of my wish to repent, no doubt of my willingness to make every reparation in my power, but still peace would not come. At last, I took it all straight to Jesus, and the burden rolled away from my heart.” The old-fashioned hymn which brought such consolation is not to be found in many present-day hymnals. It is by Helen H. Willis, and appeared in Sankey’s earlier collections. Here is the first verse:

“I left it all with Jesus long ago;
All my sin I brought him and my woe;
When by faith I saw Him on the tree,
Hear His still small whisper, ‘’Tis for thee.’
From my heart the burden rolled away—
Happy day!”

“Some of my earliest religious awakenings,” once wrote Dr. Pentecost, the celebrated preacher, “were in connection with the hymns for children that were just beginning to be sung in the Sabbath Schools when I was yet a little boy. I mention one beginning:

‘I think when I read that sweet story of old,
When Jesus was here among men,
How He called little children as lambs to His fold;
I should like to have been with Him then.’

That little hymn would always quiet me and beget within my heart seriousness and longing. When, as a child, I used to hear or sing it, I would wonder if there was any blessing that I might have from Jesus that would correspond to his calling little children to Him, and laying His gentle, loving hands on their heads and blessing them. And in after years, when I had grown to be a young man, away from home, and far from God by wicked works, that little hymn of my childhood would come to my memory; and more than once I have sung it with choking voice and tearful eye, and with emotions of real penitence in my heart. It is true that these effects were transient, but they were real and mighty; and I doubt not that God used that child’s hymn to keep my heart from becoming perfectly hardened against His ‘gentle voice.’”

A friend of the late Mr. Charles M. Alexander happened to find in a magazine a little song entitled, “Tell mother I’ll be there,” which he posted to the noted Gospel singer, with the suggestion that it might be useful in connection with his evangelistic work. Mr. Alexander pasted it in his scrap-book and carried it around for a year before he found a suitable opportunity of using. One night in Newton, Kansas, Mr. Alexander was called on to sing a solo. “I saw in the audience a great crowd of railway men,” said the singer, “and I wondered what would reach those men. With some doubt, I finally decided to try this touching song, and was surprised at the extraordinary result. Many of the men confessed Christ immediately. When the meeting was over, one big burly engineer came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Alexander, I promised my mother on her death-bed that I would become a Christian, but instead of that I have been going to the devil faster than ever. Preaching never touched me, but that song did.’ I used that song every night,” continued Mr. Alexander, “and I’ve been using it ever since. I have seen as many as a hundred and fifty men at a single meeting rise and confess Christ during the singing of that hymn, before the sermon began. It reaches all classes, because everybody has a mother. It has been criticised from a musical and a literary standpoint. I hesitated a long time before I would use the song, ‘Tell mother I’ll be there.’ I have been criticised all over the world for singing it, but you would not criticise it if you knew what it had done, and what letters and testimonies I have received about it.”

This song had an interesting origin. When President McKinley was in office, his mother lay dying in Canton, Ohio, several hundred miles away. She sent word that she wanted to see her boy once more before she died. The President chartered a special train, and telegraphed, “Tell mother I’ll be there.” A Gospel song writer caught up the idea and wrote the song.

How the singing of a Sunday School hymn brought solace to a young Highlander, as he lay dying in a foreign land, was told by a lady who was permitted to visit one of our military hospitals, soon after some wounded soldiers had been brought in. The young fellow had lost a limb, and the doctor said he could not live through the night. As he lay with closed eyes, his lips moved, and the lady, bending over him, the words “Mother, mother,” came in a gentle whisper. Dipping her handkerchief in cold water she tenderly bathed his burning brow, and as she did so he caught her hand and kissing it, cried, “Oh, that is good! Thank you, lady, it minds me o’ mother.” “Can I write to your mother? “she asked. “No,” he said, “the surgeon has promised to do that, but, oh, will ye no’ sing to me?” For a moment she hesitated. Looking out of the window her eye caught the gleam of a distant stream, and there came to her the thought of that river “the streams of which shall make glad the city of God.” and she began to sing softly the hymn, “Shall we gather at the river? “Eager heads were raised to listen to the sweet song, while bass and tenor voices, weak and tremulous, joined in the chorus:

“Yes, we’ll gather at the river,
The beautiful, beautiful river;
Gather with the saints at the river
That flows by the throne of God.”

When the song was ended, the lady looked into the face of the boy—for he was not yet twenty—and asked, “Will you be there?” “Yes, I’ll be there, through what the Lord Jesus Christ has done for me,” came the ready reply, as his face suddenly lit up with a smile. Tears gathered in the lady’s eyes as she thought of the mother, in her far-off Scottish home, watching and waiting for tidings of her soldier boy, who was breathing his last in a foreign land. Next day the good lady returned, but she did not find her Scottish laddie, for, ere the bugle sounded the reveille he had crossed the river.

Hymns have ever been a comfort and consolation in time of war as well as in days of peace. From the disastrous battlefield of Magersfontein, in the South African War of thirty years ago, there was addressed to me a letter, written by a Highlander who had been dangerously wounded, early in the battle. “I am thankful to say God has been very good to me,” he wrote. “The twenty-four hours I lay on the battlefield unattended was the happiest time I ever spent in my life. All the day and night the words of that hymn were floating through my mind:

“My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine!
For Thee all the pleasures of sin I resign;
My gracious Redeemer, my Saviour art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now! “

I had neither doubt nor fear. The Lord was verily my Shepherd. His rod and staff comforted me. Christ compassed me about; He eased my pain; He quenched my thirst; He appeased my hunger. The devil could not get in edgeways.” Outstretched upon the burning veldt, his life’s blood slowly ebbing away, the young Highlander’s consolation was in Jesus, a theme so beautifully expressed in the words of William R. Featherston, the Canadian boy’s little hymn. Facing death during those terrible hours, he was able to sing from his heart:

“I will love Thee in life, I will love Thee in death,
And praise Thee as long as Thou lendest me breath;
And say when the death-dew lies cold on ray brow,
‘If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now!’”

Fanny Crosby’s popular hymn “Rescue the perishing,” which has been the battle-cry for the great army of Christian workers throughout the world, has been blessed .to thousands of souls. It was very extensively used in the great Moody and Sankey campaigns, during which, abundant testimony to its power to reach the hearts of wanderers was amply demonstrated. Sankey tells a story of how this hymn was the means of bringing peace and happiness to one who had sunk to the lowest depths of degradation. One bitterly cold night, a middle-aged man staggered into a Mission Hall in New York. He was under the influence of drink, his face unwashed and unshaven, and his clothes in rags. He sank into a seat near the door, but was aroused by the hymn which was being sung. The words were strangely familiar, and seemed to have a sobering effect on his dulled senses:

“Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.”

As he listened, the hymn seemed to recall some memory of his youth long since forgotten. It went straight to his heart. As the preacher told the simple story of the Gospel, and how the Lord had come to seek and to save that which was lost, the stranger listened eagerly. In his younger days, the preacher had been a soldier during the American Civil War, and in the course of his address, mentioned several incidents which had occurred in his military experience, giving the name of the company in which he served. At the close of the meeting the man staggered up to the preacher, and in a broken voice, said:

“When were you in that company you spoke of?”

“Why, all through the war,” was the reply.

“Do you remember the battle of——?”


“Do you remember the name of the captain of your company at that time?”

The preacher mentioned the name.

“You are right! I am that man. I was your captain. Look at me to-day and see what a wreck I am. Can you save your old captain? I have lost everything I had in the world through drink, and I don’t know where to go. The hymn you have just sung seems to tell me there is hope, even for a wretch like me.”

He was saved that night, and was soon helped by some of his former friends to get back his old position. He never tired of telling the story of how a soldier saved his captain, and how the hymn “Rescue the perishing” was used of God in taking him out of the pit of iniquity, and setting his feet upon redemption ground.

Pathetic, indeed, was the death in America of Dr. John Watson (better known by his pen-name “Ian Maclaren”), and appropriate to a degree was his call for the words of the Scottish hymn, “My ain countrie.” His physician secured a copy of the verses, and the dying preacher and author found consolation by their recitation. This is how the hymn opens:

“I am far frae my hame, an’ I’m weary aften whiles,
For the lang’d-for hame-bringin’, an’ my Father’s welcome smiles;
An’ I’ll ne’er be fu’ content until my e’en do see
The gowden gates o’ heaven, an’ my ain countrie.”

On the last occasion that Sankey visited this country, I heard him sing “I’m far frae my hame,” and I have still a distinct recollection of how the American singer thrilled the large audience by his remarkable rendering of this beautiful Scottish song. There is a touch of pathos in its origin, but I will let Sankey tell the story in his own words: “Many years ago John Macduff and his young bride left Scotland on a sailing vessel for America, there to seek his fortune. After tarrying a few weeks in New York they went West, where they were successful in accumulating a good competence. By and by his wife’s health began to fail. The anxious husband said that he feared she was homesick.

“‘John,’ she replied, ‘I am wearying for my ain country, will ye no’ tak’ me to the sea, that I may see the ships sailing to the homeland once more?’

“Her husband’s heart was moved with compassion. In a few weeks he sold their Western home and took his wife East to a pleasant little cottage by the sea, whose further shores broke on the rocks that line the coast of Scotland. She would often sit and gaze wistfully at the ships sailing from the bay, one after another disappearing below the horizon on their way to her ain countrie. Although she uttered no complaint, it was evident that she was slowly pining away. John was afraid that she would die in a foreign land; and as an effort to save her he sold his New England home, and took her back across the ocean. She speedily recovered by the keen mountain air, the sight of purple heather, nodding bluebells, and hedge-rows white with fragrant hawthorn blossoms in bonnie Scotland, her own dear native land. To her it was home. And there is no sweeter word in any language than ‘home.’”

Mary Lee, when a young woman of twenty-three, wrote “My ain countrie,” after hearing the story of John Macduff and his wife. She was born at Cronton Falls, New York, in 1838. At an early age she lost her mother, and was left in the charge of a Scottish nurse, from whom she learned something of the Scottish dialect. It was a special favourite of Mr. Sankey, and the warmth and zeal with which he rendered it never failed to captivate the good folks north of the Tweed. Possibly it may have been on such an occasion that the words of “My ain countrie “were impressed on the memory of Ian Maclaren, to be recalled years after as he lay dying far from his native land, bringing to him in his last moments, the peace and consolation his weary heart longed after.