Hymn Stories, Backgrounds, or Context

I am sure we are all familiar with the story of Horatio Spafford and the hymn It Is Well With My Soul.  If you’re not, a simple summary would be that he wrote the lyrics shortly (as he traveled to meet his wife, he apparently wrote it as his ship passed by where the ship sank) after hearing that his family, except his wife, had all perished due to their ship sinking.  If you read about Spafford’s later life, he continued to have trials and seemed to … well, sadly, have some strange ideas.  This bothers me in that I have doubts as to his spiritual state, which makes the story … difficult, shall we say. :)

There are many other stories, and not just relegated to old hymns… people continue to go through trials and continue to write music and lyrics in response.

Before beginning, I want to make it clear that I realize there are “ways around” this … so this is more about how we think about and how we let ourselves think about “hymn stories” while singing – and perhaps, more importantly, how we tell them to others and what we expect them to do with the knowledge.

Also before beginning, these are not full, complete, ready-for-book-publishing thoughts.  I’m still trying to reason this out, and part of my reasoning out involves discussion or writing as writing (or other’s challenging) tends to encourage clarification and better thinking.  So, challenge away! 😉

Okay, so with that aside … it is perhaps a given that the background and context to a lyric clearly gives a clearer, deeper, and more emotional (often) meaning to the author’s intent with the lyrics.  To use the example of Spafford, his response is more … thought-provoking, knowing what he went through, than it might be without it.  In other words, it is a moving story.

That much is, I think, clear and obvious.  However, here is the question flitting around in my head: how does or should that affect my worship through those lyrics?  Again, using Spafford’s song as an example … when I sing the song, I am singing about me, not about Spafford.  I do not sing “It is well with Spafford’s soul.”  I sing “it is well with my soul.”

What am I getting at.  I think what I’m getting at is this; the heightened emotion at Spafford’s experience seems to be just that; heightened emotion.  But does that heightened emotion and understanding about his experience actually help my worship through that song?

I see two options for understanding someone else’s experience and … attempting … to worship in light of them.

Option one is that the experience points to God.  We are then presented with, I think, two responses.  “Wow, praise God that He was such a rock and shelter in Spafford’s time of trouble” (assuming Spafford was, in fact, saved).  The second is “Wow, if God can be such a rock and shelter in trouble like that, He certainly can be in my less-problematic trials.”  Those, I think, ARE helpful.  I can praise God for His work in other people’s lives and I can, as is the case with many of David’s Psalms, see the experience of others as manifesting God’s love, provision, care, mercy, grace, etc.

Option two is that the experience points to the author.  This is the one that I find problematic, and this is the one I am concerned about, in particular, with hymn stories, especially when presented directly before singing.  Again, using Spafford’s song – the lyrics themselves are highly testimonial and do not directly draw out the truth about God that applies to us now.  Having just heard Spafford’s testimony, my brain kinda goes like this as I sing:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
[just like the ship that sank with Spafford’s daughters!]
Whatever my lot, [like having Spafford’s family killed] Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
[Spafford said this even after that!]

In other words, with the backdrop of Spafford in my brain, I think more about Spafford and his tragedy than anything else.  As I think about having done this, I wonder … was that really worship?  What was I actually singing about?  Is it worship to sing about someone else’s experience while saying “I” and “my” and “taught ME” ?  In other words, I am singing someone else’s testimony at this point…. I’m singing Spafford’s testimony.  But the song is speaking as thought it’s my testimony.  But it’s not, the way I’m thinking about it.

I’m having a hard time putting this coherently, so I hope it is somewhat clear where the trouble lies for me.  Now, I realize that we should be able to simply … use Spafford’s experiences, in our singing, as an example of what our response should be.  Thus, we should sing that God has taught us to say that “it is well.”  But that requires me to think about my life, not just Spafford’s.

Another way to put it would be this.  Spafford’s story should simply serve in the same way that David’s stories in his Psalms do.  They should serve as an example; but I do not sing about David’s experiences with Goliath and Saul and being almost killed as though they were my experiences, nor do I find it particularly worshipful to simply sing about David’s experiences and David’s responses.  However, I don’t think David typically leaves it there; he uses his experiences to point to something about God.  For example, I randomly looked up a Psalm – #102.  David is apparently agonized in spirit: “My heart is struck down like grass and has withered; I forget to eat my bread..”  If I stopped at verse 11, all I would have sung about is David’s pain.  I’m not sure that’s easy to worship through.  But in verse 11, David changes his writing significantly:But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.”  Suddenly, David sings about something that is true for both David and me, and David’s personal testimony only serves as a contrast or example.

I guess this is where I have a harder time with It Is Well.  The song itself is more or less pure testimony.  When I don’t think about Spafford, it’s easy enough to “apply” it to me.  When I am thinking about Spafford, though, even the phrases that I should be singing about me tend to get jumbled in my mind with Spafford and I end up singing about Spafford, not about me.  Is it worship?  Well, that’s not for me to decide :)  But I know I find that my emotions get worked up and tears well up because of someone else’s peace with God all the while expressing my own peace with God.  In other words, my emotions aren’t worked up because of God’s work in my life, even though that’s what the words I am singing are actually saying.

Another way to look at it … is to consider whether we find songs with significant and emotional backstories more compelling than others.  In other words, do our emotions of empathy at someone else’s tragedy begin to color our like of a song not because it causes us to think about God’s faithfulness more, but simply because of our empathy/sympathy for the author?  As a literary work, perhaps it is more significant and a better story, sure.

Ok, now that everyone who likes the story is like “no no no no no!” … 😉  I think most of this has to do with how the story is presented.  Simply retelling the story of Spafford such that my empathy is aroused and my emotions are high is not, I think, good…. at least, it certainly does not help me, Paul, personally.  It actually tends to hinder me from consciously singing the words with meaning for me, as I instead think more about Spafford and his tragedy.  What I think would be helpful – with any hymn backstory – is having the story told and then explicitly applying that story to God’s faithfulness in such a way that it’s clear how it “applies” to me.

Another example that I recall is Blessed Assurance.  Crosby was blind, so it was pointed out that when she says “visions of rapture” … she can’t see right now, she doesn’t have any vision.  That makes an interesting story, but when I sing that, ostensibly about my blessed assurance and my savior (as well as her’s, of course, but I’m not singing “Fanny’s assurance, Jesus is her’s” :) )… how does knowing the interesting literary tidbit actually help point me to thinking about the “visions of rapture” that I am singing about me having?  It actually makes me think more about the literary device than what it will be like for me in Heaven.

And, again, I think this is how the story is presented.  It’s not enough to simply tell a good story.  If the story doesn’t actually help me understand the lyrics such that they carry more weight and meaning for me, is it actually good to bring up right before singing it?

Ok, so, my actual conclusions.  I do not think the stories are bad, but I think they can cause us to think more about what the song meant to the author even though we’re presumably singing as though it’s our experience.  Emotionalism – i.e., feeling “worshipful” because we are emotional – is very easy to “fall into” with heartstring-pulling stories (e.g., Spafford’s).  Emotions are not bad, I think we have too little in many … conservative circles :)  But, as is so often pointed out with contemporary music, conflating emotion and worship is not good; therefore, presuming that we are worshiping better because of Spafford’s emotional story simply because we feel like we are is also not good.  Just as music producing emotion rather than the content, I don’t think empathy producing emotion (rather than the content) is good.  Lastly, I think we should be careful not to allow a backstory to make us think a song’s lyrics are better than they are.  I think It Is Well does have good lyrics, so don’t get me wrong there. :)

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3 Responses to Hymn Stories, Backgrounds, or Context

  1. Laurie says:

    “Interesting tidbits” are just that -“interesting tidbits”! They help me understand what the author experienced giving birth to the lyrics. It also helps me get to know the songwriter a bit on a personal level. Most stories I know about hymn writers however are not related to the composition of a single hymn (as Spafford above) but are general facts and anecdotes about their lives.
    So, in response to your interesting piece, I would say that from personal experience, knowing stories about the authors of the songs I sing does not make me think about the authors (except in a general and occasional way) while I am singing their songs. Knowing King David was a shepherd, John Newton a former slave trader, William Cowper plagued with mental illness, etc. are just things I know that help me place this real person in some sort of place in time and space. :)
    On a similar strain, there are times when I simply “cannot” sing because I cannot honestly say the words out loud. Perhaps I am still wrestling with sin, etc.. (I.e. “For Thee all the follies of sin I resign”) Some other lyrics seem too highfalutin at the time (“visions of rapture” almost never burst on MY sight!).
    Those are my thoughts for what they’re worth.

    • Paul says:

      Hi Laurie! Thanks for the thoughts 😉

      Yes, the interesting tidbits to help you get to know the author, etc. And you’re right, most stores are more generic “mini biography” type things. I don’t usually think about the author when I know something about the author; I guess I am very specifically thinking about stories like Spafford’s where it is sometimes mentioned right before singing that song in the a corporate worship service setting. For … I guess non-singing settings, or at least non corporate worship settings, the stories can sometimes be nice as they kinda give you a peek into the author’s lives… just like any other biography :) I just have to be careful not to start giving the “benefit of the doubt” or giving passes to authors I like for problems that would otherwise be, er, problematic, hehe.

      I am totally with you on the last paragraph! There are some songs that are either difficult to sing honestly or convicting to sing (and, in my mind, become more of a prayer than declaration, sometimes). Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken and I’d Rather Have Jesus are two others that come to mind. In picking or reviewing songs, I try to avoid songs for that very reason … it’s not a “generic” enough description of the experience, I guess you might say. One such song, in my opinion, is John Newton’s I Saw One Hanging on a Tree (or “The Look” as the one the choir has sung is entitled). While I think it is a moving lyric … I found the experience to be a bit specific for a general congregational song.

  2. Laurie says:

    That last “paragraph” really is responding to whether or not we can personally express another’s experience. :)

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