Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Carols That Unite Us

Some of the poets and composers who gave us our most beloved Christmas carols would not have celebrated Christmas in the same place of worship. Yet their hymns unite Christians every year in churches, town squares, and homes around the world. Through music, truth speaks to the heart. The universal quality of music can unite us as no other medium can, even if just for a moment or a season. God’s Christmas poets came from diverse backgrounds and brought us together in adoration of the newborn Christ.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788), the younger brother of Methodist founder John Wesley, was a priest of the Church of England. Unlike John, he was intensely loyal to the Anglican Church and tradition. When John appointed Thomas Coke to be superintendent of the Methodist congregations in America, Charles wrote a poem chiding his beloved brother:

So easily are bishops made,
By man’s or woman’s whim?
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid,
But who laid hands on him?

Charles Wesley was an extremely prolific hymn writer, producing 6,500 hymns, among them the Christmas carols, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing and Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. Wesley was an accomplished organist, but he wrote none of the tunes to his hymns. Fortunately for all of us, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing was set to the marvelous music of Felix Mendelssohn in the following century and has delighted carolers and audiences ever since.

No Christmas would feel complete without the singing of Joy to the World! Its author, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), in contrast to Wesley, was anything but a loyal Anglican. He and his parents were known as Dissenters, those who did not conform to the Church of England. Watts showed an early propensity toward versifying, which sometimes annoyed the family. A story is told of his father scolding him for his incessant rhyming. Young Isaac’s reply was:

Oh, Father, do some pity take,
And I will no more verses make.

After his education, Watts became pastor of the nonconformist church in Mark Lane in London, where he set many of the Psalms to English verse and wrote many powerful hymns, all closely tied to Scripture. Joy to the World! has become a beloved Christmas carol of Christ’s first advent, but it could just as easily be seen as a hymn of Christ’s Second Coming and the establishment of His Kingdom. The broad scope of the hymn encompasses, it seems, both the first and second advents of Christ, and gives hope to all who believe.

Isaac Watts is buried in Bunhill Fields, the small Dissenters cemetery on City Road in London. His remains rest there, along with those of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, Susanna Wesley (mother of John and Charles) and many other devoted followers of Christ who await the joyous Resurrection Day.

Bunhill Fields Cemetery


Tomb of Isaac Watts

O Little Town of Bethlehem is a favorite of children and adults alike. Its author, Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), was the Episcopalian pastor of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia. The six-foot, six-inch tall Brooks would often interrupt his ministerial studies to romp with the boys and girls in the neighborhood. He had a heart for children, and in 1868 he was preparing his sermon for the children’s Christmas program, when his mind went back to his trip to the Holy Land and the Christmas Eve he spent at Bethlehem. The words to the carol began to flow through his mind.

The next day he gave the lyrics to his organist, Lewis H. Redner (1831-1908), who carried them in his pocket for several days before a melody came to him. Shortly before Christmas, Redner was awakened by what he described as “an angel strain,” and quickly arose and wrote down the notes. He harmonized the melody the next morning, and on Christmas Day the children sang O Little Town of Bethlehem for the first time. How touching it is to hear young voices sing it each Christmas!

Probably the most beloved Christmas carol of all time, Silent Night, Holy Night, came to us from Roman Catholic priest Joseph Mohr (1792-1848) and his organist, Franz Gruber (1787-1863) in the little Austrian town of Oberndorf. Unlike the prolific Wesley and Watts, Mohr and Gruber produced no other hymns that remain today. Author James Draper wrote: “Like the Star of Bethlehem, Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr appeared once long ago on a 'silent night,' and seemingly passed on into the vastness of the universe.” (More Than A Song, p. 55)

A week before Christmas, a traveling drama troupe came to Oberndorf to perform a dramatization of the Nativity in the Church of St. Nicholas (appropriately enough!). Unfortunately, the organ was broken and the disassembled parts were strewn over the church floor. So the actors performed their play in a nearby home.

Deeply moved by the performance, Father Mohr walked to a foothill overlooking the village to meditate. In the still night the words to the carol came to him. The next day, Mohr shared the hymn with Gruber who wrote the soothing melody that calms troubled hearts each year.

At the Christmas Eve Mass, Mohr and Gruber performed the carol, accompanied by Gruber’s guitar, since the organ was still broken. Little could they have imagined the impact and lasting quality of their simple carol.

The Apostle Paul wrote that there will come a day when all true Christians will “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13 NKJV) Until the day dawns in Christ’s Kingdom, Christians of various denominations will have their differences, some very important ones. But our Christmas carols remind us that we can bow in awe before the Holy Child of the manger in Bethlehem, and worship our God made flesh who dwelt among us.


Article and Photo credits: Copyright 2009 by Thomas L. Jones

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Prayer Meeting That Shook America

The summer of 1857 had been frustrating for businessman and lay missionary Jeremiah C. Lanphier. Business itself had been good, but week after week he had knocked on doors in lower Manhattan, inviting people to worship services at the Dutch Reformed Church at Fulton and Williams Streets with little success. The church had fallen on hard times. Old families had moved away and the neighborhood had become a business district, populated by transient laborers and recent immigrants.

But the bigger problem was prosperity. The young nation was in its Golden Age. Railroads and steamship lines had expanded trade and facilitated the great westward movement. New cities were springing up and states were being added. The telegraph speeded communication, and gold was discovered in California!

The boom was on!

But the increase in gain brought a decrease in godliness. Church attendance was pitiful. The new materialism was also having political repercussions as the cloud of civil war hung over the land.

Lanphier knew that the only hope for the nation was a spiritual awakening. But how could he get the message of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ to a money-mad nation? Lanphier took his frustrations to the Lord in prayer.

Later, while making his rounds of visitation, the answer came to him. Businessmen might be interested in a noonday prayer meeting once a week. Excited, Lanphier passed out handbills and put up placards announcing the first noonday prayer meeting for Wednesday, September 23, 1857. Five businessmen and the pastor showed up. The meeting seemed in no way extraordinary. But unknown to Lanphier, God was about to do something that would bring the nation to its knees.

On September 25, the Bank of Philadelphia failed. Twenty men came to the next prayer meeting. The third week there were forty, and Lanphier decided to hold daily meetings in a larger room. On Wednesday, October 14, the nation was struck by the worst financial disaster in its history. Fortunes evaporated, banks closed, railroad companies went bankrupt, unemployment soared, and families faced hunger.

In a short time, the Fulton Street prayer meeting had taken over the whole church building, drawing crowds of more than 1,000 people. People from all walks of life attended: “leading capitalists, prominent lawyers and judges, eminent physicians, merchants, bankers, mechanics (and) tradesmen.” Shop keepers hung signs on their doors at noon: “Closed—Be back after prayer meeting.” Police and Fire stations provided space for meetings, as did Burton’s Theater and the New York City Music Hall.

Because of the large numbers at the meetings, rules were drawn up and posted:

Brethren are earnestly requested to adhere to the five minute rule: Prayers and exhortations not to exceed five minutes in order to give all an opportunity.

Prayer meetings spread throughout New York and Canada. A revival broke out in Hamilton, Ontario, and a New York newspaper reported that over 300 people were converted within a few days. By January, 1858, there were at least twenty daily meetings in New York City, drawing as many as 10,000 people in total. Newspaper reporters were sent to cover the meetings, and “The Progress of the Revival” became a regular headline.

Stories of human drama abounded. A man bent on killing his wife and himself wandered into the Fulton Street meeting and listened to a fervent exhortation urging repentance. Suddenly, the desperate man cried out, “Oh! What shall I do to be saved?” Then another man stood with tears streaming down his cheeks and asked the people to sing “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.” By the end of the meeting, both men had put their trust in Christ.

Noted prize fighter Earl “Awful” Gardiner was converted at another meeting. He then visited Sing Sing Prison to give his testimony to some old friends there. As a result, Jerry McAuley, a notorious river pirate, was converted. McAuley later founded the Water Street Mission, one of the nation’s first rescue missions. The spiritual movement reached not only the lowest of society, but the highest. President James Buchanan began attending meetings in Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, and showed great interest in the progress of the revival.

In a Midwestern church, twenty-five women began meeting once a week to pray for their unconverted husbands. Later, the pastor traveled to the Fulton Street meeting to testify that the last of the twenty-five husbands had repented, trusted Christ, and joined the church.

At a special meeting in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a prayer request was read to the group: “A praying wife requests the prayers of this meeting for her unconverted husband that he may be converted and made a humble disciple of the Lord Jesus.” A stout, burly man arose. “I am that man,” he confessed. “I have a pious, praying wife. This request is for me. I want you to pray for me.” As soon as he sat down, another man got up. “I am that man,” he said. “I have a praying wife. She prays for me, and now she has asked you to pray for me. I am sure that I am that man, and I want you to pray for me.” As many as five men stood up claiming to be that husband in need of prayer.

Prayer requests flooded in by telegraph and mail from all over North America and even Europe. No request was refused. Letters told of many specific answers to prayer. A Chicago newspaper summed up the results of the revival in that city:

So far as the effects of the present religious movement are concerned, they are apparent to all. They are to be seen in every walk of life, to be felt in every phase of society. The merchant, the farmer, the mechanic—all who have been within their influence—have been excited to better things, to a more orderly and honest way of life. All have been more or less influenced by this excitement.

It has been estimated that no fewer than 300,000 and perhaps as many as one million people were converted to Jesus Christ through the influence of the Fulton Street Prayer Meeting Revival. And the greatest impact was made in one year!

The repercussions, however, were felt for years after. While the revival did not stop the Civil War, neither did the Civil War stop the revival. The Confederate Army revival saw 150,000 conversions, and by the end of the war Confederate soldiers professing faith in Christ made up one third of the army. The effects of the revival were also felt across the Atlantic in the “awakening” which swept the British Isles.

The slow, frustrating labors of Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier had culminated in the most intense, fast spreading revival in our nation’s history. It was also the last great national revival in the United States. Could it happen again? Could our present economic distress be the avenue to spiritual renewal? Should we not be praying?


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Heavenly Quality of Life

In the eyes of today's assisted suicide advocates Elizabeth didn't have much quality of life. She was scarcely ever free of pain, often suffering intense headaches. Her condition was aggravated by chronic insomnia. Doctors could neither isolate the cause of her physical misery, nor eliminate the symptoms.

Still Elizabeth pressed on cheerfully, looking beyond her bodily state to her joyous fellowship with family, friends and God. She loved her hometown of Portland, Maine, where she taught school and wrote poetry and articles for a Christian youth magazine.

But the earthly joys that alleviated Elizabeth's suffering were not to last.

At age 27, she married a minister who accepted a call to a church in New York City, far from her beloved home, students and friends. In time, two children brightened their life and brought warmth to the big city.

Then tragedy struck. Their oldest child succumbed to illness, and before the grieving parents could recover from that blow, their youngest child died, also. The inconsolable mother wrote in her diary: "Empty hands, empty hands, a worn-out, exhausted body, and unutterable longings to be free from a world that has so many sharp experiences."

One day, after visiting the cemetery, Elizabeth broke out in tears and cried, "Our home is broken up, our lives wrecked, our hopes shattered, our dreams dissolved. Sometimes I don't think I can stand living another moment, much less a lifetime."

Elizabeth was a candidate for suicide. And who could have blamed her? Constant physical pain, and now the inner agony of bereavement. Just a little nudging from a counselor or a doctor who specialized in "relieving" such suffering with a needle or gas, and Elizabeth might have been gone.

Instead, she opened her Bible and discovered that God revealed Himself to the patriarch Jacob in his times of deepest sorrow and need. She prayed that He would manifest Himself afresh to her heart.

Rising from her knees, Elizabeth Payson Prentiss penned the words to a hymn that has lifted hearts out of depression for over 100 years: "More Love To Thee, O Christ." In the second verse, Elizabeth summarizes her pilgrimage from earthly longings to heavenly aspirations:

Once earthly joy I craved,
Sought peace and rest;
Now Thee alone I seek--
Give what is best.

Elizabeth Prentiss discovered that quality of life is measured by the object of our affections. She learned to "set (her) affections on things above, not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:2).


Friday, November 27, 2009

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