Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

by Rev. John H. Farmer

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Singing Comforting Words 

I sing all the time, even when I am silent. The hymn melodies that overtook my soul when just a wee lad ring in my ears. Mixed with newer tunes, they buoy my soul from one wave of life to another.

For that reason I find the various collections of hymns on my shelves to be a great source of comfort. Of course all the great and not so great hymnals have the fast and true songs of Zion. All contain the pillars of Christianity, the call of God on the human soul. I love the majesty, the power, of so many fine hymns.

However, just like favorite passages in the Bible, I have favorite hymns as well. I dearly love and honor those hymns that present a loving Savior, reaching out to me. I flourish when I sing the hymns of repentance and confession. But, I have deduced, after many years, that those hymns that provide comfort to my soul are the ones that I sing, hum and play the most.

In our new hymnals two of my top 10 favorites share space in the open book. One is “What A Friend We have in Jesus,” written by Joseph Scriven (1819-1866) and Charles Converse (1832-1918). My Hazel tells me that this was a favorite hymn of her dad, the late Edward Shelton. He was a Methodist fish boat captain, loving husband, dad of four, who became town constable later in life. I find it comforting to know that my wife’s dad also loved that song. Across the page sits ‘No, Not One,” written by Johnson Oatman Jr. and George C. Hugg (1848-1907). This is the tune I wish to sing along with you. It’s late. ‘Hope I am not keeping you up. But my body won’t rest, my head will not snuggle a pillow yet. I need to experience the comforting words about our God.

Johnson Oatman Jr. was born in Medford, N.J., on April 21, 1856. He became a Methodist minister, although never pastored a church. He labored as a businessman and a hymn writer. For a while Oatman worked with his father’s mercantile business in New York. After the death of his father (himself an accomplished church musician) he moved to Mount Holly, N.Y., where he sold insurance and continued his calling to gospel texts and poems. In 1892 he wrote his first hymn, which was put to music by John R. Sweeney (1837-1899), who also composed the tune for “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.”

The late Ellen Estel of Irvington learned that hymn in public schools in Northumberland, England. She delighted in such singing in our Wednesday evening prayer meetings.

Oatman fell on ill health, retired from the business world in 1893, and devoted the rest of his life to hymnology (almost 30 years). His collection of texts, poems and messages is over seven thousand strong. So, he was just hitting his hymn writer’s stride as our church was converting itself from the Carter’s Creek Meeting House (ca 1891) to the Irvington Baptist Church (1895). Our present hymnals, dedicated to Anderson L. Gaskins in 1993, hold a treasure trove of new tunes and “No, Not One,” written a hundred years earlier and some even older yet. Four of those hymns are by Johnson Oatman Jr. Did you know that the tune also goes by other names? They are “There’s Not A Friend Like the Lowly Jesus,” “Evangeline,” and of course “Harper Memorial.”

“No, Not One” was first published in a hymnal (“Heaven’s Echo”) in 1895. It was married to a tune known as “Harper Memorial” by George C. Hugg. The “Harper Memorial” tune was named after Hugg’s Presbyterian Church home, in Philadelphia. Johnson Oatman Jr. died in Norman, Okla., on September 25, 1922, while Dr. Albert Edwards Estall was our Irvington pastor.

In 1904, our Baptist Hymnals contained the comforting words. Let’s pause and listen to them, eh?

“There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, no not one, no not one! None else could heal all our soul’s diseases, no, not one, no, not one!

No friend like Him is so high and holy, no, not one, no, not one! And yet no friend is so meek and lowly, no, not one, no, not one.

There’s not an hour that He is not near us, no, not one, no not one! No night so dark but His love can cheer us, no, not one, no not one!

Did ever saint find this friend forsake him? No, not one, no not one! Or sinner find that He would not take him? No, not one, no not one!

Was e’er a gift like the Savior given? No, not one, no not one! Will He refuse us a home in heaven? No, not one, no not one!”

The song is interspersed between each verse by the chorus: “Jesus knows all about our struggles. He will guide till the day is done. There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus, no, not one, no not one!”

If you have a piano, a keyboard of any kind, go to the parlor and sing the song, please. It is a soothing melody and some of the most comforting words of which I know.


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