Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith: Hymns of the Faith: Great is Thy Faithfulness

by Bill Wymond, Derek Thomas, J. Ligon Duncan on October 28, 2007

Lamentations 3:22, 23

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Hymns of the Faith


“Great Is Thy
Faithfulness”

Lamentations
3:22, 23

A Presentation of
First Presbyterian Church

Jackson,
Mississippi

With

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill
Wymond

Dr. Wymond: Good morning! This is “Hymns of Faith”
brought to you by First Presbyterian Church. The minister of First Presbyterian
Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Stay tuned for “Hymns of Faith.”…And now here with
“Hymns of Faith” is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Thank you, Bill Wymond. It’s a
delight to be with you and with Derek Thomas this morning, talking about hymns
again.

Welcome to “Hymns of the Faith,” where we talk about
the great hymns of the Christian church. Christians live and die singing, and
it’s our joy to talk about the great songs that Christians have been singing,
some of them, for almost two thousand years now.

And this morning we’re going to move into the
twentieth century to a modern hymn. A number of the songs that we have done the
last weeks have been from the sixteenth century or seventeenth century, some
from the nineteenth century; but today we move into the twentieth century and to
a hymn which I think is associated in many people’s minds with perhaps the Billy
Graham Crusades. Great Is Thy Faithfulness would have been a favorite
hymn sung at those Billy Graham Crusades in the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s.

The hymn itself — the text of the hymn — was written
in 1923, back in the early 1920’s by Thomas Chisholm…(and I’m going to let you
tell us a little bit about Thomas Chisholm in just a moment, Derek). But the
song itself began to make its way into the hymnals at least by the early 1950’s
— maybe earlier than that. I’m not particularly aware of when it started making
its inroads into all the hymnals, but I know that it was in the Methodist hymnal
and the Baptist hymnal by the mid-1950’s. And I certainly remember growing up
singing this hymn from the time that I would have remembered hymn–in the, say,
mid-1960’s. This was one of the hymns that we were singing in the church, and
it’s still a favorite today in our congregation and in most congregations that
still sing hymns.

Could you tell us just a little bit about the author
of the hymn, Derek?

Dr. Thomas: Surely. Thomas Obadiah Chisholm was
born in 1866. As you said, the hymn itself was written in 1923, and he lived to
a good old age. He retired the year I was born, in 1953, to a Methodist home. He
was born in Franklin, Kentucky, in a log cabin. He had a meager education in a
country school. It is said that he became the teacher of the school at the age
of 16, and at 21 he became the associate editor of a weekly newspaper, The
Franklin Favorite
. And then he was converted in 1893 (he would have been 27
or so) under the ministry of a Dr. Henry Clay Morrison, who was the future
president of Asbury College. And Chisholm then moved to Louisville, at
Morrison’s persuasion, and became the editor of something called The
Pentecostal Herald
.

Dr. Duncan: I saw that in the documents and
thought that I’d love to know a little bit more about that publication, because
he seems to be associated with the Methodist church throughout his life.

Dr. Thomas: Right. He was ordained a Methodist
minister in 1903. He’d have been — what is it? — 36, 37 or so? And he served in
a brief pastorate in Scottsville, Kentucky. I’m not sure where that is…but
Scottsville…

Dr. Wymond: Eastern Kentucky.

.

Dr. Thomas: And this would be fairly rural?
Farming community?

Dr. Wymond: Yes.

Dr. Thomas: He had very poor health, and he moved
his family to a farm near Winona Lake in Indiana and became an insurance….or as
I would say, “insurance” — but you would say an “insurance”
salesman [laughter]…moving eventually to Vineland, New Jersey, in 1916, and then
retires in 1953. Apparently he wrote some 1200 poems, 800 of which were
published and many were set to music, although I have to say that Great Is
Thy Faithfulness
is the only piece that I know by him. It’s quite
interesting that somebody could be raised up of God, live for almost a hundred
years, and then be remembered for one thing. And it looks as if he will always
be remembered for this one marvelous hymn.

Dr. Duncan: And it’s a beautiful, beautiful tune
of course that William Runyan set the text to, but the text itself is superb.
Of course it has allusions to Lamentations 3:22, 23, and the song walks you
through a celebration of God’s faithfulness to us in promise and in providence:

“Great is Thy
faithfulness, O God my Father;

There is no shadow of
turning with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy
compassions, they fail not;

As Thou hast been Thou
forever wilt be.”

So as he’s preparing to make the declaration, “Great
is Thy faithfulness,” he’s reminding himself of the constant, unchanging,
committed, unfailing compassion of God that doesn’t shift and change, and is not
fickle and unreliable, but can be counted on every morning, just like the dew.
And so his confession of faithfulness has as its backdrop in this case the
constancy of God.

And then that’s sort of reflected in the second stanza:

“Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon, and stars in their
courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold
witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy,
and love.”

So that the very rising of the sun, the very fact
that you look up at night and there are the stars — they are a testimony to the
constancy of God. They’re there morning, noon, and night, and day after day
after day, in a testimony to His faithfulness.

But then I love the way the third stanza climaxes by
focusing our attention on God’s redeeming work:

“Pardon for sin and a peace that
endureth,

Thine own dear presence to cheer
and to guide,

Strength for today and bright
hope for tomorrow,

Blessings all mine, with ten
thousand beside!”

So even as he thinks of these manifold blessings of
God’s providence, central to those are pardon for sin and the peace that passes
understanding that comes from being made right with God; the present enjoyment
of the nearness of God and the guidance of God; the hope that the Lord gives us
in salvation; and then, the declaration again:

“Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I
see:

All I have needed Thy hand hath
provided–

Great is Thy faithfulness,

Lord, unto me!”

I’m trying to think, Bill. We sometimes sing this in
funeral services and in some other special services, too. But in our
congregational life, we’re regularly singing this song of course on Sunday
mornings and evenings and Wednesday nights. Where are the places that you have
seen this song used? Do you have something you want to interject?

Dr. Thomas: Well, in Belfast it was often sung at
a Watch Night Service. The end of the year, December 31.

Dr. Duncan: Well, the text fits for that, for
sure!

Dr. Thomas: Right! And it was the way…it was
because of its covenantal setting: “Great is Thy faithfulness” in Lamentations.
God is faithful to what? Faithful to His word, and faithful to His promise,
and faithful to His covenant.
It seemed appropriate that you were looking
back and giving thanks over the last twelve months for God’s enduring
faithfulness and as an aspiration of hope for the year to come. So we often sang
this in Watch Night Service.

Dr. Duncan: And, Bill, presumably this hymn has
been sung at First Pres since you were here, when you first came.

Dr. Wymond: Actually we started singing this hymn
in 1965, I remember.

Dr. Duncan: Wow! Tell us about that.

Dr. Wymond: We changed hymnals at that time, and we
started using a hymnal that had the hymn in it, and it was immediately a great
favorite. And I think it has had its greatest impact at funerals. It’s just the
testimony song of so many people. We had a big celebration here at the turning
of the millennium also, and I remember that the hymn around that time was used
in the same way that you all used it as a Watch Night hymn.

Dr. Duncan: So it was in the Worship and
Service Hymnal
…is that when we picked that up? And it had not been part of
the congregational singing before then. But presumably people would have heard
it.

Dr. Wymond: I think that’s why we got that hymnal,
because this one and others were in it. One called Like a River Glorious…and
so this hymn immediately became one of the favorites of the congregation because
they did have a familiarity with it.

Dr. Duncan: Am I right in my recollection? Is
this one that Billy Graham would have used, and George Beverley Shea, and others
would have sung and played during…?

Dr. Wymond: I think so. The movement out of which
this grew, which was the Holiness wing of the Methodist church. There were a lot
of camp meetings in Kentucky, and I’m sure that Chisholm would have been a part
of those…connected with Asbury College. And so the gospel hymns, these wonderful
hymns that affirm these great scriptural promises, grew out of that movement.
And Winona Lake, Indiana, had a big publishing house and published hymnals…

Dr. Duncan: And a big seminary and a big summer
conference. I mean, they just had a huge, huge summer. People would go up there
and camp and go to the conference and such, a lot like the one that you’ve been
to in Iowa, where that big campground…people come in and stay for the week…bring
their families…

Dr. Thomas: You know, in a letter dated 1941,
during the Second World War, Chisholm wrote:

“My income has not been large at any time, due to impaired health in the early
years, which has followed me until now; although I must not fail to record the
unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God, for which I am filled with
astonishing gratefulness.”

Dr. Duncan: Umm! That’s a great testimony. Bill,
the music to this hymn is really, really different from the ones that we’ve done
so far. Tell us a little bit about the music that Runyan wrote for this.

Dr. Wymond: The music for this hymn really is
different in that it is actually a little more complex. It doesn’t have quite
the repetition as some of the other hymns, which made me wonder if perhaps it
was first used as a solo piece, and then, as with so many other of the gospel
hymns, then became a congregational song.

The thing that is nice about it is that it just
grows in emotional intensity so that the high point comes at the very end of the
hymn when you repeat the phrase, “Great is Thy faithfulness.”
There’s a
refrain here, which is common to gospel hymns — we would call it a “chorus” a
lot of times — which is the Scripture, “Great is Thy faithfulness.” I think it’s
a nice tune. It’s very singable, which always pleases me! Let me just start it
out to remind folks [plays]. And in that somewhat dramatic tone there of an
organ, it sort of shows the emotion. Then as we come to the end to “Great is Thy
faithfulness” in the chorus, it sounds like this [plays piano]. And then the
affirmation, “Great is Thy faithfulness” [plays to demonstrate], and then,
“Lord, unto me.” [Plays]

Dr. Thomas: Now, Bill, what is the musical term
for the way in the last line it so stretches it out…comes almost to a stop, just
before the end there?

Dr. Wymond: Well, I think there’s not a particular
musical term, but we could just psychologically describe it as a very emotional
moment. It’s nice.

Dr. Thomas: The tunes that we’ve been singing and
listening to in the previous sessions we’ve had were very staccato; the notes
had a very definite time quality to them. But this sort of tune is capable of
being squeezed and stretched, depending on the emotional nature of the word.

Dr. Wymond: It’s the stylistic thing to do that,
too, with these songs. And it’s just a way to infuse them with a lot of emotion,
which is not a bad thing. That’s what the music is for. It’s to express the
emotional response to the text.

The songs that came out of this era of the
twenties, gospel songs often had that quality to them. They were more
emotionally charged, and they were sung in that style as well. They were sung
very freely.
I remember one time we had a soloist here who had traveled with
Billy Graham. I cannot remember his name…Stratton Shufelt…J. Stratton Shufelt,
who had traveled with Billy Graham in the beginning of his evangelistic Crusades
and had gone to Europe with him and so on in the late forties. And he would sing
a gospel song like this one for us each evening at the meetings that we had, and
he was so free with them that you really had to be on your guard. You couldn’t
play with him note for note, because he would run away with the notes, and then
suddenly you just had to hold the chord so that he could have the full freedom
to do the dramatic effects with the time like that.

Dr. Duncan: William Runyan,
commenting on the writing of the tune, says that this particular poem held such
an appeal that he really wanted to provide a tune that would carry the message
in a worthy way, and he gives testimony that the subsequent history of its use
indicated that God had answered his prayer. It’s interesting that Chisholm
himself doesn’t indicate that there was any special circumstance in the writing
of the text itself. In other words, there was no dramatic experience in his life
that led to the writing of the hymn other than, he says, just his Christian
experience and Bible truth.

Well, that pushes it back to Lamentations, Derek.
What’s going on when Jeremiah makes that confession of the faithfulness of God
to Israel? What’s going on in terms of Bible truth when that confession of God’s
never-failing compassions is made by Jeremiah?

Dr. Thomas: Well, of course Jeremiah is predicting
the final overthrow of Israel and Jerusalem by the Chaldeans [or the
Babylonians], and Jeremiah is in a particularly difficult spot because he is
being accused of being unpatriotic. Because to the very end he is urging them to
succumb to this judgment, and there were those who thought that was an
unpatriotic stance of his. And in the end of course Jeremiah has to flee to
Egypt. He was left behind in the exile itself. But that was Israel’s darkest
moment, to quote a Churchillian phrase: the loss of the temple and all of its
artifacts: the ark of the covenant, the tablets of stone, Aaron’s rod that
budded…all of those disappeared during that time. The temple was razed to the
ground. Jerusalem was set on fire and burnt. Hundreds of thousands were taken
into captivity. So in the midst of it — those are the lamentations, of course —
and in the midst of it, God is faithful to His promise to His remnant, to His
chosen people.

Dr. Duncan: So if we bear that in mind, given
that Chisholm himself is working off of Bible text and making that declaration,
it really is so suitable that in any crisis of life
, in the bereavement when
one has lost a loved one, that this text be sung. Because if Jeremiah can
declare “Great is Thy faithfulness” in Israel’s worst hour, then we as believers
can declare “Great is Thy faithfulness” in our worst hour.

Dr. Thomas: The words are so memorable. A lot of
us, I imagine, sing this hymn from memory. There is a cadence to them:

“Summer and winter, and
springtime and harvest;

Sun, moon, and stars in their
courses above

Join with all nature in manifold
witness

To Thy great faithfulness, mercy,
and love.”

And there’s a simplicity to the poetry.

There are some hymns whose poetry…I remember reading
a hymnbook that belonged to a friend of mine, Geoff Thomas. I remember browsing
through his copy of a hymnbook that was marked from beginning to end. Every time
they had sung the hymn he had put a little date by it, and so on. And there were
some hymns that were just scored through and said “Poetry too complicated!” It
was good poetry, but most of them didn’t know what they were singing. The idioms
and the metaphors were too complicated. But this one has a very direct appeal,
bringing the changes constantly on this word faithfulness.

Dr. Duncan: Bill, you had commented on how the
last line stretches out, and in the edition of the hymn that I’m looking at in
front of me, which is out of our hymnal, there’s a fermata on the “-ness”
of the faithful-ness, right before the “Lord, unto me!” And I guess it’s
up to the director or up to the organist how long that’s going to be dragged
out…or to the soloist, if the soloist is singing it. But are there any other
comments on the shape of either the rhythm or the melody or the tune that you
would want to draw people’s attention to?

Dr. Wymond: Well, actually, the rhythm of the hymn
is fairly steady, and the interesting thing about the melody is that it starts
out rather low and it just continues to rise throughout the hymn, which adds
this sort of dramatic tension to it, I think. Or it just conveys a sense of
great conviction.

Dr. Duncan: It doesn’t get too high, though.
You have often commented to me
that you have noticed that people…the high
end of their singing register is lower than it used to be. People can’t quite
get as high as they used to be able to get.

Dr. Wymond: I think that’s because of several
factors, and one may be actually good health of people — that they are more
virile and vigorous, and their voices are lower. One might argue that. Or one
could argue that it’s because people don’t sing, and that’s the line of argument
that I would take. It used to be that people sang in school all the time. They
would sing at home around the piano. And now very little singing is done by
people, so they have a narrow range in their voices. Also, voices used to change
in men…I remember reading somewhere that Bach was still singing soprano at the
age of 19, and so voices have lowered earlier and earlier in men, and so that’s
a factor also. And to me it’s important that the men sing the tune where it’s
written–and the women, too, and not grovel and go down an octave lower. So if we
keep the tunes at reasonable ranges I think that they will most normally sing it
where it’s written.

Dr. Duncan: So this one, it’s all within about an
octave, basically, the tune from bottom to top. But it doesn’t get much above a
D, and so you’re not putting anybody…or does it ever get above a D?

Dr. Wymond: No, no, it doesn’t.

Dr. Duncan: …and so a D is as high as it goes and
nobody is having to squeeze and strain to sing it, but still it’s high enough to
be robust and strong in the affirmations.

Dr. Wymond: To me — now I hope the non-musicians
will excuse us — the higher D is about the most reasonable limit that a hymn
should go to. So we try to work it so that our hymns don’t go above that.

Dr. Duncan: And you do notice it. For instance,
our congregation loves to sing For All the Saints, but, boy, by the time
they get to the last stanza on those high notes it’s pretty tough!

Dr. Wymond: Well, even in the years that I have
been doing church music, it’s been interesting to see how the pitches of hymnals
have dropped. I remember that the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy used to be in the
key of E when we first started, and so that took the congregation up to an E.
Then it dropped to E-flat, and now it’s at D in most hymnals. It may go down
even lower.

Dr. Duncan: I did not know that! Well, let’s
listen to this hymn, Bill.

Dr. Wymond: And, Dr. Duncan, this hymn will be sung
for us by Clifford McGowan. Great Is Thy Faithfulness.

“Great is Thy faithfulness, O
God my Father;

There is no shadow of turning
with Thee;

Thou changest not, Thy
compassions, they fail not;

As Thou hast been Thou forever
wilt be.”

“Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I
see:

All I have needed Thy hand hath
provided–

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord,
unto me!

“Summer and winter and
springtime and harvest,

Sun, moon, and stars in their
courses above,

Join with all nature in manifold
witness

To Thy great faithfulness,
mercy, and love.”

“Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I
see:

All I have needed Thy hand hath
provided–

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord,
unto me!

“Pardon for sin and a peace that
endureth,

Thine own dear presence to cheer
and to guide,

Strength for today and bright
hope for tomorrow,

Blessings all mine, with ten
thousand beside!”

“Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I
see:

All I have needed Thy hand hath
provided–

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord,
unto me!

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