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My Hope is Built on Nothing Less

“My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.”  This popular hymn text was written by British Baptist minister Edward Mote (1797-1874) in 1834. Although his childhood was characterized by no particular religious education, he soon found himself under the sway of the Rev John Hyatt at Tottenham Court Road Chapel. A contemporary biographer of Mote's writes of this particular hymn's development:

The writer of this hymn has kindly informed us that the chorus of this hymn flowed into his mind one morning as he was walking up Holborn Hill, London, on his way to business, about thirty-five years ago. Four verses were soon written, and two more on the following Sunday. They were of immediate use in affording comfort to a dying friend. This encouraged their author to have a thousand copies printed. These being without initials, were inserted in collections, and other names put to them; but the author vindicated his claim in the ‘Gospel Herald.’ The original being—“Nor earth nor hell my soul can move.”[1]

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders inspired Mote to compose this text. In this familiar story (found in Matthew 7 and Luke 6), Jesus exhorts us to put His Word into practice—to build our house on the secure rock rather than on the sinking sand. Mote’s hymn, with a refrain, encourages us to build on the solid rock which is Christ:

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness

No merit of my own I claim but wholly lean on Jesus name.

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.

What does it really mean for one’s hope to be built on “nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness?”  To me, for whom the careless use of clichés can cause indescribable mental pain, this phrase can too easily degenerate into a harmless platitude.  In another stanza not contained in LSB, Mote writes, “I dare not trust the sweetest frame, But wholly lean on Jesus name.”  What is this “sweetest frame” which seems to be the antithesis of “Christ the solid Rock?”  One might recall the many heroes of the faith.  The martyrs of the first three centuries of the Church proved with their lives that they trusted Christ above that of Roman law.  The “sweet frame” of earthly life, although they probably would have preferred it, could only pale in comparison to eternal life.  One thinks of the so-called “Morningstar of the Reformation,” the Englishman John Wycliff who, because of his biblical translations and teachings, was burned at the stake.  Certainly he could have recanted and lived into old age.  He chose to forsake that “sweet frame” in favor of faithfulness to his conscience which, although they are not necessarily always congruent, happened to correspond to God’s Word, particularly with the Great Commission.  Of course, Martin Luther could have chosen to ascend the ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy as the gifted professor of Wittenberg—esteemed, rich, powerful, famous.  It has always amazed this writer that Luther was not burned at the stake as many of his friends and co-reformationists were.  Luther himself gave up a life of luxury to become one of the most despised men in Europe, although his faithfulness to his conscience resulted not only in the return to an evangelical Church, but even of some reform in the Roman Church (Council of Trent [1545-1563]).   Certainly the list from Christian history is extensive of those who have proven, not through empty words but through their lives and sacrifices, that they truly could sing with assurance, “On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;  All other ground is sinking sand.” 

When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace;

In every high and stormy gale my anchor holds within the veil.

His oath, His covenant and blood support me in the raging flood;

When every earthly prop gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.

Scripture is replete with nautical references and metaphors, which unsurprisingly make their way into the corpus of hymnody which so depends on scripture for its own inspiration. This is all fine and good, but we still have little more than platitudes in applying this to our lives. Do we truly forsake “every earthly prop?” Do those of us who are “professional” church workers test every thought, saying, and doctrine with God’s Word?  Do we simply take the word of others simply because we assess their piety as being equal to or greater than ours?  Do we take for granted the words of human beings instead of heeding the advice of I John 1: 4, “Do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world”?  Consider Hebrews 6: 16-19: "Men swear by someone greater than themselves, and the oath confirms what is said and puts an end to all arguments. Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of His purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure." Ideas, culture, practices, and the world may change, but Jesus Christ and His promise remains unchanged.

When He shall come with trumpet sound, Oh, may I then in Him be found,

Clothed in His righteousness alone, redeemed to stand before His throne!

On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.

[1] Josiah Miller, Singers and Songs of the Church: Being Biographical Sketches of the Hymn Writers in all the Principal Collections (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869), 449.

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I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light

Music Notes

16 August, 2015

“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light”  During a relentless heat wave during the summer of 1966, Kathleen Thomerson and her family, in an effort to escape the rolling brownouts of St Louis, elected to return to the comfort of her mother’s air conditioned home in Houston. Although a musician, not a poet, by training, and certainly not intending to write a hymn, Thomerson’s recent meditations on scripture passages dealing with childlike faith unexpectedly began to evoke the first stanza of this hymn, which she composed, phrase by phrase both in text and tune, instead of packing for the airport. She composed the remaining stanzas in the same fashion after arriving in Houston, hence giving genesis to the tune name. Originally conceived as a choral anthem, its first use as a hymn was at Church of the Redeemer, Episcopal, in Houston, where congregants routinely purloined the copies that had been placed in each pew. The popularity of this hymn grew appreciably within the next few years, necessitating its copyrighting in 1970. Although originating in the Episcopal Church, the hymn has been appropriated within the hymnals of numerous mainline denominations and has been translated into Welsh, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch and Hmong. 

Although placed within the hymnal’s Epiphany section, the text, which has been used even for weddings and funerals, bears a pronounced Advent theme, evidenced particularly by the second stanza which references Malachi 4: 2, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Nevertheless, the distinct emphasis on light contrasted with dark not only suggests an Epiphany usage, but links it not only to the hymnological tradition of Luther, for whom such theological dichotomies were of primary importance, but even back to Greek hymnody with its frequent allusion to the “light” of Christ to the Gentiles. The hymn’s original extra-liturgical composition, as well as its devotional character, suggests general congregational use beyond one or two liturgical seasons.

            The incipient theme of Christ abiding within the heart of the Christian was inspired by Ephesians 3: 17, “. . . so that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.”  Michael Hawn posits that, like in a gospel song, the hymn’s refrain encapsulates its theological meaning, in this case culminating in the final words, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus,” not only gaining inspiration from Ephesians, but also alluding to I John 1: 5, “This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Thomerson contends that her meditation on scripture inspired this hymn, with its rich scriptural metaphor and imagery even conveying an eschatological tone in the penultimate phrase, which is nearly verbatim from Revelation 21: 23, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The hymn may manifest a theme of childhood, alluding to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: 3, "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” but it was initially composed for adults to nurture their childlike faith.  Its length may seemingly belie its childlike simplicity, but the text’s amalgamation of subjective, first-person pronouns with profuse scripture references seem to have been elemental to its popular success, much to the surprise of the composer, who originally harbored only modest aspirations for her choral anthem. 

Thomerson originally wrote this hymn in D-flat, although performance concerns have normally resulted in its transposition to C-major in most hymnals. The gracefully simple melody and text effortlessly “composed themselves,” Thomerson recalls, but she later had to work out a harmonization feasible for choral singing. Some settings include a fermata at the end of the third line of the refrain simply to allow for a breath when singing it in four parts; however, this is not necessary for unison, congregational singing.  At the beginning of the last phrase, all four voices intentionally converge on the C of “shine” in order aurally to highlight that word which forms the focal point of the final and culminating phrase of the hymn. 

 

 

 

 

Personal interview with Kathleen Armstrong Thomerson.  9 July, 2009.

Hawn, Michael.  “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” United Methodist Hymnal Companion, edited by Carlton Young.  Nashville:  Abingdon, 1993.

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