“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church

This beloved hymn was sung as an anthem by the choir at the July 28th worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] Listening to it was enriching although joining in congregational singing of the hymn would have been even more meaningful.

At least for me, however, there is not enough time while listening to an anthem or singing a hymn to ponder the true meaning and significance of its words. I recently have discovered that gaining a better and deeper understanding of a hymn or anthem requires subsequent meditation on the words, researching the hymn’s history and writing an essay recording the results of that meditation and research. In short, such a practice has become a spiritual discipline.[2]

The Lyrics

Here are the lyrics of the three verses of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing:”

1. Come, thou Fount of every blessing,

tune my heart to sing thy grace;

streams of mercy, never ceasing,

call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,

sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,

mount of thy redeeming love.

2. Here I raise mine Ebenezer;

hither by thy help I’m come;

and I hope, by thy good pleasure,

safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,

wandering from the fold of God;

he, to rescue me from danger,

interposed his precious blood.

3. O to grace how great a debtor

daily I’m constrained to be!

Let thy goodness, like a fetter,

bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

prone to leave the God I love;

here’s my heart, O take and seal it,

seal it for thy courts above.

The hymn testifies to the amazing graces God provides to human beings. God bestows “streams of mercy, never ceasing.”  By God’s “help I’m come” thus far in my life, and with God’s “good pleasure, [ I hope] safely to arrive at home.”  “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God; he, to rescue me from danger.” [3]

Confession of sin also is prominent in the hymn. The human being has a “wandering heart” that is “prone to wander” and “prone to leave the God I love.” The human can be and has been a “stranger, wandering from the fold of God.”

Therefore, the human being needs constraints, binders and fetters to combat this impulse to wander. The human needs God to “tune my heart to sing thy grace.”

God responds to this need with “goodness.”  The human in turn responds with “songs of loudest praise.”  “Praise the . . . mount of thy redeeming love.” “Fount of every blessing.” The human then offers “my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”

The hymn’s reference to raising “my Ebenezer” long baffled me. The answer is found in the following passages of First Samuel in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), which is believed to have been written in the seventh century BCE:

  • Israel was engaged in battles with the Philistines. While Israel’s troops were encamped near the village of Ebenezer, the Philistines routed Israel and seized the Arc of the Covenant in accordance with the ancient custom of taking the statue of the god of the defeated enemy as booty. (1 Samuel 4-5.)
  • Seven months later the Philistines returned the Arc of the Covenant to Israeli people in the town of Beth-shemesh who subsequently delivered it to the people of the town of Kiriath-jearim. (1 Samuel 6-7:1.)
  • Twenty years passed, and Samuel, a prophet and judge, told the people of Israel. “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods [and idols] . . . from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve Him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7: 2-3.)
  • The people did as they were told, and Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at [the town of] Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord” for forgiveness for your sins and for deliverance from the Philistines. The Israeli people then gathered at Mizpah for this religious ceremony. (1 Samuel 7: 4-6.)
  • When the Philistines learned of this assembly, their troops advanced to attack the Israeli people at Mizpah. The Lord, however, “threw [the Philistines] into confusion; and they were routed before Israel.” (1 Samuel 7: 7-11.)
  • To commemorate this event, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and [the village of] Jeshanah, and named [the stone] Ebenezer [stone of help and the site of the prior victory of the Philistines]; for he said, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (1 Samuel 7:12.) In other words, Samuel publicly dedicated this stone, according to another blogger, “as a monument to God’s help, God’s faithfulness, God’s eternal covenant. And as the people got on with their lives, the stone stood there, visible to all who passed that way, a reminder of judgment and repentance, mercy and restoration.”

Thus, “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come” is a metaphorical way of saying that I recognize that God has helped me reach this point in my life and that it is important to create an outward expression of this recognition and gratitude.

The Lyricist

Robert Robinson
Robert Robinson

The lyrics were written around 1757 by Robert Robinson, an Englishman then age 22 and a recent convert to Evangelical Methodism. In 1759 after a brief period at a Congregational Chapel, he joined Stone-Yard Baptist Chapel in Cambridge, England. There he remained for most of the rest of his life, first as Lecturer and then, from 1762 to at least 1788, as Pastor.

Although Robinson had argued against Unitarianism for many years, in 1788 he apparently converted to that faith although never doubting the full divinity of Jesus Christ. In 1790 he visited Joseph Priestly, a noted Unitarian in Birmingham, England [4] and preached several sermons at his chapels. There Robinson died and was buried in that city’s Dissenters’ Burial Ground.

The Composer, Publisher and Arranger

Nettleton
Asahel Nettleton
John Wyeth
John Wyeth

In the U.S., the hymn is usually set to an American folk tune known as Nettleton, composed by Asahel Nettleton (1783 –1844), an American theologian and pastor from Connecticut who was highly influential during the Second Great Awakening.

In 1813 the hymn and music were included in the Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second that was published by John Wyeth, a Philadelphia printer. This book and its predecessor, the Repository of Sacred Music, were highly successful, selling over 150,000 copies. In the preface to his work, Wyeth claimed three qualifications as a compiler of sacred music: years of attention to the charms of church music; acquaintance with the taste of eminent teachers; and the possession of more than a thousand pages of music to use.

Howard Don Small
Howard Don Small

The musical arrangement used at Westminster on July 28th was by Howard Don Small (1933-2007), who had been the Choirmaster and Organist at Minneapolis’ St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral. When he retired from St. Mark’s in 1998, a choir member expressed appreciation for Small’s “qualities of professionalism, musicianship, and leadership;” gratitude . . .  for the opportunity to grow, learn, and deepen my spirituality; sadness – that [Small] will be leaving, but also; happiness – that [Small] will be able to be relieved of the extreme pressure of your role to do things at a manageable and enjoyable pace.”

Conclusion

Melanie Ohnstad
Melanie Ohnstad
Jere Lantz
Jere Lantz

 Merely recounting the involvement over 250 years of four men in the creation, publication and arrangement of this hymn (and anthem) and then the Westminster choir’s singing the hymn under the direction of Jere Lantz with the organ accompaniment by Westminster Minister of Music & the Arts/Organist, Melanie Ohnstad, brings to mind two Scriptural passages.

All of these individuals are members of the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1-2) who meld their different gifts into one body to produce something pleasing to God (Romans 12: 3-8). Including Samuel in this cloud of witnesses, as we should, expands the time period to over 2,700 years.

I must confess that the Howard Don Small arrangement that was sung by the choir made a significant, and, I think, unfortunate change in the lyrics. Instead of “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come,” they sang “Here I find my greatest pleasure; In the help I hope I’m come.” (I am not too sure about the latter part of this substitution.) This change undoubtedly was prompted by the arranger’s knowing that many people today do not understand the reference to “raising my Ebenezer.”

This wording change, however, obliterates Robinson’s meaning and also prevents people from researching and discovering that true meaning. A professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Gary A. Parrett, has been crusading against such changes to this hymn. His article in Christianity Today expressed the following reasons for this opposition, which I endorse:

  • “Robinson [undoubtedly] felt he had found just the right expression to say what needed to be said. His phrasing, in this case, was succinct, biblical, pointed, poignant, and poetic.”
  • The “revisions are, at best, inconsistent attempts to be culturally relevant. How can the revisers leave in words like hither and fetter, as they typically do, while Ebenezer is heartlessly expunged?”
  • The revisions ignore the Biblical foundation for Robinson’s words, as pointed out above. As Parrett says, the “single word [Ebenezer] ushers the worshiper into both the biblical episode and the greater narrative of God’s redemptive dealings with his people. It points us, also, to Robinson’s dramatic conversion three years before he penned the hymn, inviting us to reflect upon our own stories and to remember God’s faithful dealings with us. By removing the word from the hymn, we likely remove it from believers’ vocabularies and from our treasury of spiritual resources.”
  • “What we have in such revisions is the worst sort of accommodation, even contribution, to biblical illiteracy. Our faith is filled with names and terms that were unfamiliar to us when we joined the family—atonement, propitiation, Sabbath, Passover, Melchizedek. What are we to do with such terms? We teach! How difficult would it be to simply explain the reference to Ebenezer?”

[1]  The bulletin and a video and audio recording of this service are available online.

[3]  These words remind me of the third verse of another great hymn, Amazing Grace: “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.”

[4]  Priestly (1733 –1804) was an 18th-century English theologian, Dissenting clergyman, natural philosopher, chemist, educator, and political theorist. He usually is credited with the discovery of oxygen

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

5 thoughts on ““Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing””

  1. Thank you for compiling this excellent history of a very special song, and for arguing in favor of retaining Robinson’s original language. The best hymns teach us about the faith, and drive us to want to know more about God and His revelation to humanity in Christ. Removing the word ‘Ebenezer,’ as so many modern versions are unfortunately doing, robs God’s people of an incentive to dig more deeply into the faith in search of treasures they might otherwise never discover.

  2. This was always one of my favorite hymns because I was baptized in Ebenezer Presbyterian Church. The symbol of an “Ebenezer” raised in time if trouble has always been a comfort to me. We sang it at my mother’s funeral and at my last day at Westminster!

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