Reflections

by Rev. John H. Farmer

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My Favorite Hymn: ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’

 Thomas Obediah Chisholm’s hymn, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” has had a hold on my life for decades. I so enjoy singing and playing its message.

Friends, aware of my love for the song, have given me mementoes appertaining thereto. Friend since the 1970s, James S. Andrews James, of Campbell Memorial Presbyterian Church, gifted Hazel and I with a beautiful framed calligraphy depiction that adorns our front hall.

Being both the preacher and worship leader in a small Baptist Church are at times conflicting efforts. Often when I am standing at the sacred desk at Irvington, I become painfully aware that I might not get through the service without help.

One Sunday my spirit was waning before I even got to the sanctuary. Perhaps colds, a week of hosting two of our five grandsons, Christmas exhaustion, whatever… I was feeling defeated. I announced the next hymn and tossed over to our wonderful organist Gloria Lee Jones that we would be playing “How Great is Thy Faithfulness” for the offertory special. I welcomed deacon Jimmy Robertson to the platform and wandered over to the Yamaha grand given us by the Graham Family, in memory of their mom, Mary Alderson Graham.

Gloria is such a team player that we fell into an unrehearsed arrangement-on-the-fly of the hymn. By the time we arrived at the second stanza the air returned to my spiritual balloon and I knew I would be ok.

This hymn, which appears in many evangelical hymnals and song collections, was written by a native of the small Kentucky town of Franklin. Chisholm (1866-1960) was born in a log cabin. At age 16, though he lacked formal education, he nevertheless became a teacher and still later, at the age of 21, associate editor of his hometown weekly newspaper.

He was won to the Lord in 1893, through the ministry of Henry Clay Morrison, founder of Asbury College and Seminary in Wilmore, Ky.

Later Chisholm was ordained a Methodist minister, serving only one brief appointment, at Scottsville, due to ill health. “Chisholm relocated his family to Winona Lake, Ind., to recover and then to Vineland, N.J., in 1916 where he sold insurance. He retired in 1953 and spent his remaining years in a Methodist retirement community in Ocean Grove, N.J.”

He wrote more than 1200 poems, 800 of which were published, many were set to music.

Carlton Raymond Young born in 1926, Hamilton, Ohio, (teacher, editor, composer and conductor), wrote that “Great is thy Faithfulness” was second only to “In the Garden” as the most requested hymn for inclusion in The United Methodist Hymnal.

For most of we Baptists, that would be an outright challenge, however.

The late George Beverly Shea (1909-2013), Canadian-born gospel singer of the Billy Graham Crusades, introduced this hymn to those attending the evangelistic meetings in Great Britain in 1954. It immediately became a favorite.

“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!”

Lamentations 3:22-23 provides a basis for the refrain: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Stanza one emphasizes God’s unchanging nature: “There is no shadow of turning with thee; thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not.” Perhaps James 1:17 provides the scriptural basis for this concept: Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

In stanza two, the natural created order, including the cycle of the seasons, bears witness to the faithfulness of God. The final stanza brings the eternal, unchanging God into contact with humanity. We receive from the presence of God “Pardon for sin and a peace that endures.”

Indeed, William M. Runyan (1870-1957) married tune to text as the ideal musical complement revealing the warmth of the text. The subtle changes in harmony and the solemnity of the melody amplify the text, bringing the climax on the word ‘faithfulness’ perfectly at the end of the refrain.

A while back the talented David Graham, knowing of my love for the hymn, arranged a spectacular piano rendition for an offertory selection. Wow, is an understatement of the congregational response.

With such heavy-handed nudges of God, I have decided to have the congregation sing the hymn Wednesday at prayer time and again Sunday. Say, why don’t you join us?