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Hymns of the Faith: O the Deep, Deep, Love of Jesus

Series: Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith

Radio Lecture by J. Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, and Bill Wymond on Jan 27, 2008

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Hymns of the Faith
“O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!”

A Presentation of First Presbyterian Church

Jackson, Mississippi


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

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

Dr. Duncan: Thank you, Bill Wymond. This is Ligon Duncan, and we are here for “Hymns of the Faith” and delighted to be here talking about these great songs of the last two thousand years that have instilled hope in the hearts of thousands of Christians and have expressed our faith in God, our love for Christ, our belief in the Scriptures. And today we have come to just a marvelous, marvelous Welsh tune. And so it's appropriate that I now greet my Welsh friend, Derek Thomas. Good morning, Derek. How are you?

Dr. Thomas: O'r gorau. Ddiolch 'ch. Good morning.

Dr. Duncan: I love this song. I love the tune. I love the text. The song that we are going to be looking at today is O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus! It's set to a marvelous Welsh tune which somewhere along the line got called in English “Ebenezer” but which has a beautiful and, to me, unpronounceable Welsh name that goes like what?

Dr. Thomas: Ton-y-botel.

Dr. Duncan: Which means…

Dr. Thomas: Tune from a bottle.

Dr. Duncan: And you and Bill Wymond will tell us what that means a little bit later on. But it was–The song itself, the text itself was written by Samuel Trevor Francis who lived almost a hundred years. He was 90-something years old when he died. He lived from the 1830's to the 1920's. So he spans the 19th and early 20th centuries. I couldn't tell you exactly when the song itself was written, but give us a little bit of background on the author and the setting of this song, because you were telling us off-air before we came on this morning, this song is still really well-known in Wales, sung in secular setting even–on football pitches when national games are being played. So it's one of your–What would you say–one of top ten or twenty tunes known in Wales even to this day.

Dr. Thomas: Well, yes, of course. You've just committed the faux-pas with the word “football,” because it would be rugby.

Dr. Duncan: This would not be sung at what Americans call “soccer” matches? This wouldn't be sung at “football” matches?

Dr. Thomas: No, it's almost exclusively the rugby crowd that sing hymns. And they sing the most well-known, gospel-focused, Christ-centered, cross-centered hymns.

Dr. Duncan: Now folks, if you just drove off the road, hang on and Derek will explain this to you later on. I mean you can't imagine a Pittsburgh Steelers crowd singing Jesus! What a Friend for Sinners! at half time at the Steelers-Cowboys game.

Dr. Thomas: I think, although this is somewhat simplistic, but in 1904 there was a revival in Wales in which hundreds of thousands of people were converted in the space of six to eight months.

Dr. Duncan: And you don't mean they signed a card and prayed a prayer. You mean people were really converted. Their lives were transformed all over Wales.

Dr. Thomas: And if you go to Wales today, you’ll see these large chapels in relatively small little towns. And there’ll be four or five of these chapels, each of them holding 600 to 1,000 to 1,500 people. And they were built–If you look at them, they were built at the turn of the century…

Dr. Duncan: …because of these large crowds of people that had come to faith and wanted to go to church.

Dr. Thomas: Now these days, of course, they are empty, and some of them have been sold, and they are used as commercial property, and they've been converted into houses and so on. But you still see them, and my grandfather's generation, in say the 1910's, the 1920's, the 1930's, grew up to go to chapel. And Welsh people–at least the folklore is that Welsh people to this day love to sing, and the Welsh male-voice choir phenomenon that you find in Philadelphia among the Welsh immigrants of the 19th century. And the coal-mining industry in Philadelphia–There's a famous Philadelphia male-voice choir–a Welsh male-voice choir. So at rugby matches–I mean I remember as a boy going to rugby matches and singing O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!

Dr. Duncan: But you would sing it in Welsh.

Dr. Thomas: Sing it in Welsh–The same words but translated into Welsh. And folk who have never darkened the door of a church will at least know the first stanza.

Dr. Duncan: Now did Samuel Trevor Francis write it in Welsh and then have it translated into English? Or was it written in English and translated into Welsh? Do you happen to know?

Dr. Thomas: It was written–The text was written in English, because he was born in Hertfordshire. And I imagine he was thoroughly English. I don't think he has any Welsh connections at all. He was the son of an artist, born in Hertfordshire, which is sort of central England.

Dr. Duncan: Midlands?

Dr. Thomas: Yes, yes. And he was a merchant in London and wrote a number of hymns. And I'm not sure that I recognize any of them that I have before me now. They sort of sound familiar; although I don't recognize them. We are Pilgrims, Far from our Fatherland–I don't recall ever singing that. But this one O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!–especially the graphic way that it describes “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free; rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me.” The imagery of that is so powerful. It's one of these hymns that's married to a tune. I can't imagine singing this to any other tune, but this Welsh tune, “Ton-y-botel.” The folklore is that it was a tune that came out of a bottle. It was written down in this bottle, and it landed on the shore of Wales. Now, I would love to think that's true. But it's actually attributed to a Thomas John Williams.

Dr. Duncan: Now that's a good Welsh name.

Dr. Thomas: That's a very good Welsh name. Born in–and even I'm struggling with this one–Ynysmeudwy which I've never heard of. But at any rate, it's in the Swansea Valley…

Dr. Duncan: Let's just say Swansea.

Dr. Thomas: …which I know well, because I was born within a few miles of the Swansea Valley and studied music in Cardiff and then became an organist and a choir master of Zion church in Llanelly–two “l”s, a-n-e, two “l”s, y–“klan-ef-ee.” Llanelly is just about 10 or 15 miles away from where my mother lives, in southwest Wales. And he had apparently written a large number of hymn tunes and anthems.

Dr. Duncan: Now do you think that it is just mythological that the Welsh are good singers or like to sing? You seemed to cast dispersions on that earlier in your comments, and I'd always taken that as an absolute truth of all…

Dr. Thomas: I think that sociologists in the future may well have to say that part of that tradition was the chapel-going background of the Welsh where they did sing. Now, present generations of Welshmen don't go to church or chapel. They don't sing hymns except at rugby matches. So I'm not sure that that tradition of singing can be maintained apart from the church…

Dr. Duncan: And do we know how long that tradition of singing goes back in Wales? I mean is that something that is a 19th century phenomenon? Or no, it's not–It goes a long way back. Or do you know?

Dr. Thomas: It was a gift given to the Welsh by God. [laughter]

Dr. Duncan: Well, you know the joke that goes around about how the gospel won the British Isles goes like this: The English heard that it was something to argue about; the Irish heard that it was something to fight about; the Welsh heard that it was something to sing about; and the Scots heard that grace was free. [laughter] And so, you know, I don't know how long that joke has been going around, but it's been going around for a long time.

Dr. Thomas: My father, who was not a believer, loved to go to chapel to hear the singing. He could be reduced to tears listening to Mahalia Jackson singing. The whole tradition of, what's called in Welsh Cymanfa Ganu [a festival of sacred song featuring 4-part harmony sung by the gathered congregation and directed by a musician. Many of the hymns can be traced back to the spiritual life in the land of Wales where 4-part harmony began way back in the 12th century] which still exists to some extent, where on a Sunday evening all the local chapels would meet. And in Wales a church that isn't the Church of England or the Church of Wales is called a “chapel.” They will all meet together and sing. It's like a hymn-fest. If you went to the Evangelical Conference of Wales in Aberystwyth, the singing would knock you over–the congregational involvement in singing–and that more than the Irish or the Scottish or the English. And I think that that would still be true.

Dr. Duncan: It's interesting that you mentioned that he loved the singing of Mahalia Jackson, because I don't know any of my Gaelic friends, whether they’re from Ireland or from Scotland, that don't love American gospel music and the rhythm and blues kinds of music that flow out of it.

Dr. Thomas: When I think of Vaughn Williams’ music, it's–I love it, but it's very English and very cerebral. I always think of his music as affecting the mind in some sort of way. But the Welsh music gets straight to the heart. And I'm not sure I can explain that musically.

Dr. Duncan: Well, let's go to Bill Wymond and talk a little bit about this tune. I mean the minute you hear it, if you sing hymns at all, you know it's Welsh. I mean you don't need to look down and tell where it was written or when it was written. You know it's Welsh. What's Welsh about it, Bill?

Dr. Wymond: Well, I'm not sure what's Welsh about it, but I will say that I've never met a Welsh tune that I didn't love. And some of the great hymns that we have have these Welsh tunes. And they’re expansive. They’re not real simplistic. They’re obviously very folk song involved…

Dr. Thomas: And written with large congregations in mind, don't you think?

Dr. Wymond: I think so, because they have long lines…

Dr. Duncan: So you need a fairly big crowd to sort of keep them going…

Dr. Wymond: Right. And the tempos, for most of them, would not be fast, as far as I can tell. By the way, I think that I've seen overseas occasionally where they will show those Welsh groups that gather together for singing.

Dr. Thomas: “Cymanfa Ganu.”

Dr. Wymond: Yes, and they are just marvelous. But back to the tune. This is like a sea chantey to me. I don't know where Thomas John Williams got the inspiration for this if he didn't find it in a bottle on the sea coast, but every time I sing that line about his love, “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free; rolling as a mighty ocean,” I think couldn't be a better tune for this; because this tune sounds like the fomenting of the waves of an ocean.

And what makes it so appealing is two things, I think. It involves a lot of thirds, and thirds (I contend) are very, very warm emotional friendly intervals. And over and over again you have this [Dr. Wymond plays tune]–which is going up the interval of a third. So that's one of the main musical ideas.

And then another one is the use of triplets which is a rhythmic connotation, and those thirds are in triplets. You have [Dr. Wymond plays tune]. And that gives that feeling of bouncing along the waves and so on like that.

The tune doesn't get–does not have strange or unexpected intervals in it. It's just friendly all the way through. Let me do just a little bit of the tune. [Dr. Wymond plays tune.] And it repeats that again. Then later on it goes [Dr. Wymond plays tune]. Do you hear all of these intervals, thirds and the triplets? I’ll go ahead. Back to the initial theme. And I want to ask you one other thing, Derek. This is in a minor key.

Dr. Thomas: A lot of Welsh tunes are in minor keys.

Dr. Wymond: I've noticed that. Is that be…

Dr. Thomas:because minor keys are much more emotional.

Dr. Wymond: I think they are.

Dr. Thomas: And that's why the Irish–I say Irish, forgive me–I mean the Ulster protestants of Northern Ireland hated them. I was almost eighteen years as a minister in Belfast, and the Welsh tunes invariably they did not like, because they (the Irish) were much more assertive. That minor key strain just did not appeal to them.

Dr. Duncan: And yet they’re not somber. They’re emotional. They may be in a minor key, but they are very vigorous, and they’re not depressive in any sort of way. They’re just very deep, I find them. So…

Dr. Wymond: There may be just a little tinge of melancholy in this minor…

Dr. Thomas: “Hiraeth” is the Welsh word. It's one of these words that often characterize a national identity–the Welsh and “hiraeth,” this longing. The Welsh, having been a conquered nation since the 12th century, so that may well be a part of it.

Dr. Wymond: Well, you know of course, the Irish are very emotional, aren't they? But their songs tend to be in major keys.

Dr. Duncan: But, of course, these would mostly be Ulster Scots. They've come over from Scotland, and you've got…You can hear the more metrical kind of Scottish psalm kind of thing in contrast to the Welsh tune. Although you go out onto the western isles, and my guess is that the Welsh songs would play very well–or the tunes would play very well there.

Dr. Thomas: And anyone who knows Celtic music can identify, I think, with this. I mean this tune was difficult for a lot of unaccomplished church pianists, because it had four flats in it. And they would say, “Oh, no four flats! Can't sing this.”

Dr. Wymond: Well, you know, there is such strong emotional connection to every key. And “F” minor which this is in, is a very sort of a sober and dark key. I love it, but it's one of the more melancholy…Well, that's not the most important thing to talk about, is it?

Dr. Duncan: Well, but I mean it's in the minor key, and I think what it evokes is a powerful emotional connotation that is not negative in any way but deep. And I think that the very language “O the deep, deep love of Jesus!” is served very well by both the minor key and the rigor of the song. Because, as you said, those thirds…you feel like you are out there somewhere in the north Atlantic, and those north Atlantic waves are rolling over you.

Dr. Wymond: There is a real masculinity to this song and to most Welsh tunes. Not that the feminine isn't good. The Irish have more of the feminine. [Dr. Wymond plays tune.] That to me is a more feminine sound than this particular one.

Dr. Duncan: And the text is beautiful. “O the deep, deep love of Jesus! Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free; rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me. Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love; leading onward, leading…” And here's a good Welsh word. “…homeward, to Thy glorious rest above.” And so it simultaneously celebrates the immeasurable love of Christ, and points us to our heavenly home with Him. That's the first stanza.

The second stanza: “O the deep, deep love of Jesus!...” And that phrase will be repeated each stanza as the opening line. “…Spread His praise from shore to shore;…” Now we're into the business of proclamation. We’re adoring Him; we're proclaiming Him. “…how He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore; how He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own; how for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne.” I mean every line of that is rich.

Dr. Thomas: There's a subtext here that isn't on the surface, but the longing for home, the reassurance of God's wings spread around you…I mean the subtext is that life here can be hard and difficult and trying; and he's not focusing–the text isn't focusing on the trials. It's focusing on the deep, deep love of Jesus that enables us to overcome the trials. But we mustn't miss the subtext of the trial of the pilgrimage of this life and the longing for home which is why the tune is in the minor key.

Dr. Duncan: It adds to the effect, doesn't it…just the recognition of that context from which the song is being sung. And then…Bill?

Dr. Wymond: I just wanted to ask Derek a question. In this first stanza which Ligon read, there is this picture of the love rolling over us, being under us and around us and so on. It sounds like St. Patrick's breastplate which talks about love before me, under me, over me…Is that a religious theme that you find in your culture?

Dr. Thomas: You know, that's a….I have never thought about that. That's a great, great question. As I read these words, I think of the coastline of South Wales and Pembrokeshire that he would have been familiar with, which is a very rocky coastline often given to gale-force winds. So the sea (and the sea here would be the Irish Sea) can be a troubled sea. And the imagery of this rolling nature of the Irish Sea is very, very…

Dr. Duncan: It was interesting–totally unrelated–but in a recent interns meeting, we discovered that one of our interns here at the church who is a former officer in the U.S. Navy has often been through this area, stopping with the Navy on various exercises that were done in conjunction with the British fleet. And I had made some remarks about the Minch, the sea between Scotland and its northwest outer islands, and then the Irish Sea and some of these other things, and he came up to me afterwards just to say that he had been there on several occasions and identified with these kinds of things that you've just described.

The third stanza is “O the deep, deep love of Jesus!...” Again starting with those words. “…Love of every love the best:…” What an important affirmation, Derek, that is in a generation where we've been told repeatedly by popular singers that the greatest love of all is loving ourselves, and here's this profound Christian affirmation far from it. The greatest love of all is the love of Christ. “…'tis an ocean vast of blessing, ‘tis a haven sweet of rest. O the deep, deep love of Jesus! ‘Tis a heav’n of heav’ns to me; and it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee.” And so it's interesting how it comes back again–The very love of Christ brings us back to him. And the song makes its way back around from Christ to Christ. You begin singing “O the deep, deep love of Jesus.” The greatest thing about it is it lifts us right back to him. And so it speaks to us of that soul's communion with Christ which is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Dr. Thomas: There was a time when the hymnbook, the church's hymnbook, would have been beside your bed at night. It would have been the devotional, along with the Bible, of course. But the hymnbook was an important source of devotion. And the kind of things that you find here, especially these closing words “'tis a heav’n of heav’ns to me; and it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee.” One cannot but sing that or read those words, and that not be turned into prayer of thankfulness and gratitude and expressions of trust.

Dr. Duncan: One of the things that I was struck by when I first came to Jackson, visiting Dr. Doug Kelly, who may be familiar to some of the listeners who are with us this morning, visiting him on a Monday which he took off for devotional purposes. On Monday morning you would find him in his study, at his house, with his Bible in one hand and his hymnal in the other. And he spent the whole morning reading hymns, singing them to himself, praying them to God, seeking to memorize them as well. And that was a good testimony from him to me which I've tried to take up and implement in my own life. The hymnal, one of my professors used to say, is the repository of the devotional treasures of the ages for the Christian. And we really cheat ourselves if we don't familiarize ourselves with these profound texts, and this is one of the best.

Dr. Wymond: What a good way to prepare for worship as you’re in the sanctuary before the church starts rather than chatting with folks–just to take out the hymnal and read the devotional material there.

Dr. Duncan: And work through a hymn. Well, let's hear this beautiful hymn, Bill.

Dr. Wymond: Dr. Duncan, Ben Roberson will sing for us O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!.

[Soloist sings:

“O the deep, deep love of Jesus!

Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free;

rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me.

Underneath me, all around me,

is the current of they love;

leading onward, leading homeward,

to thy glorious rest above.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus!

Spread his praise from shore to shore;

how he loveth, ever loveth,

changeth never, nevermore;

how he watches o’er his loved ones,

died to call them all his own;

how for them he intercedeth,

watcheth o’er them from the throne.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus!

Love of ev’ry love the best:

‘tis an ocean vast of blessing,

‘tis a haven sweet of rest.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus!

‘Tis a heav’n of heav’ns to me;

and it lifts me up to glory,

for it lifts me up to thee.”]

Dr. Wymond: This has been “Hymns of the Faith” brought to you by Jackson's First Presbyterian Church.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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