Stories behind various hymns

Ever wonder how or why a particular hymn came into being?

A 'pdf' download file is available at each Hymn Story.

Amazing Grace.pdf

The Old Rugged Cross.pdf

Wondrous Cross.pdf

All Glory, Laud and Honor.pdf

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.pdf

Go  To Dark Gethsemane.pdf

He Lives.pdf

In The Cross of Christ, I Glory.pdf

Bread of theWorld.pdf

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.pdf

I am Thine O’Lord.pdf

Beneath The Cross of Jesus.pdf

My Faith Looks Up to Thee.pdf



The gift of forgiveness is often best appreciated by those who need it the most. The Reverend John Newton experienced this truth firsthand. His tombstone tells the story: "John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had so long labored to destroy." These words were written by Newton himself, a testimony to God's transforming power. After years as a hardened slave trader, that "wretch" met Jesus Christ and abruptly turned to defend the gospel he had so long despised.

Throughout Newton's years of ministry, God's amazing grace remained central to Newton's thinking. When it was suggested he retire (at age eighty-two!) due to poor health and a failing memory, he responded, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior!"





Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound-

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.


'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed!


The Lord has promised good to me,

His word my hope secures;

He will my shield and portion be

As long as life endures.


Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come;

'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home.


When we've been there ten thousand years,

Bright shining as the sun,

We've no less days to sing God's praise

Than when we'd first begun.


John Newton (1725-1807)

John P. Rees (1828-1900), stanza 5

United Methodist Hymnal #378

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The Old Rugged Cross

"The inspiration came to me one day in 1913, when I was staying in Albion, Michigan," George Bennard wrote about the composition of this hymn. "I began to write The Old Rugged Cross. I completed the melody first. The words that I first wrote were imperfect. The words of the finished hymn were put into my heart in answer to my own need. Shortly thereafter it was introduced at special meetings in Pokagon, Michigan, on June 7, 1913."

Bennard had served with the Salvation Army before being ordained in the Methodist Episcopal Church. By this time he was carrying on revival services through the Midwest. After it's debut at Pokagon, the song was presented at an evangelistic convention in Chicago. Participants then took it back to their homes throughout the country.



The Old Rugged Cross


On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,

The emblem of suffering and shame;

And I love that old cross where the dearest and best

For a world of lost sinners was slain.


So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,

‘Til my trophies at last I lay down;

I will cling to the old rugged cross,,

And exchange it some day for a crown.


0 that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,

Has a wondrous attraction for me;

For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above

To bear it to dark Calvary.


In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,

A wondrous beauty I see;

For 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died

To pardon and sanctify me.


To the old rugged cross I will ever be true,

Its shame and reproach gladly bear;

Then He'll call me some day to my home far away,

Where His glory forever I'll share.


George Bennard (1873-1958)

United Methodist Hymnal #504

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When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

Few believers ever Iearn to truly love the cross of Christ. For though it offers great deliverance, it also demands great sacrifice. Isaac Watts drives this truth home through the words and music of this powerful hymn. Watts was deeply disappointed with the hymns of his day, which failed to inspire his parishioners to genuine worship and holy living. His dissatisfaction led him to compose more than six hundred hymns, all designed to call his congregation to a deeper knowledge and worship of God. This hymn was written in 1707 for use in a Communion service.


The music of this hymn was borrowed from Gregorian chant. Its rich, grave tones call those who sing it to realize the seriousness of Christ's sacrificial death. What shall we offer to God in grateful return for His gracious gift? All that we are and have is but a small offering in return for such great love.


When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.


Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

Save in the death of Christ, my God;

All the vain things that charm me most-

I sacrifice them to His blood.


See, from His head, His hands, His feet,

Sorrow and love flow mingled down;

Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,

Or thorns compose so rich a crown?


Were the whole realm of nature mine,

That were a present far too small:

Love so amazing, so divine,

Demands my soul, my life, my all.


Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

United Methodist Hymnal #298,299

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When Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, hopeful crowds filled the streets waving palm branches and praising God. The people believed that the Messiah had finally come to lead a revolt against the Romans. But less than a week later, when it became clear that Jesus was not the revolutionary they expected, this same crowd demanded His crucifixion.


When life keeps pace with expectations, praise comes quite easily. But for Theodulf, whom King Charlemagne had made bishop of Orléans in the late 700s, praise was born of painful circumstances. After Charlemagne's death, Theodulf was exiled to Angers, France, on charges of conspiracy. In the dark prison at Angers, Theodulf apparently wrote the text of his hymn, which has become the great Palm Sunday processional of the Western church‑a celebration of God's grace sung by millions throughout the centuries.




All glory, laud, and honor

To Thee, Redeemer, King,

To whom the lips of children

Made sweet hosannas ring:

Thou are the King of Israel,

Thou David's royal Son,

Who in the Lord's name comest,

The King and blessed One!


The company of angels

Are praising Thee on high,

And mortal men and all things

Created make reply:

The people of the Hebrews

With palms before Thee went;

Our praise and prayer and anthems

Before Thee we present.


To Thee, before Thy passion,

They sang their hymns of praise;

To Thee, now high exalted,

Our melody we raise:

Thou didst accept their praises

Accept the praise we bring,

Who in all good delightest,

Thou good and gracious King!


                          Theodulf of Orléans (c.750‑821)

Translated by John Mason Neale (11818‑1866)

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The grave has been "boasting" of its power since Eden. But now it has finally met its match. It wraps Jesus up at the Cross and "forbids Him rise" but our Champion, Jesus Christ, fought and won. Where is your sting now, 0 Death? Christ has won the final victory.


We know that whatever boasting we do is not in ourselves, but in the power of Christ. He has won the victory, and now we're just soaring where Christ has led. We bask in the benefits of the Cross, and we look past the grave to our heavenly reunion with Him. Alleluia!




Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!

Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia!

Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!

Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!


Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia!

Where, 0 death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!

Once He died, our souls to save, Alleluia!

Where's thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia!


Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!

Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!

Death in vain forbids Him rise, Alleluia!

Christ hath opened paradise, Alleluia!


Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!

Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!

Made like Him, like Him we rise, Alleluia!

Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!


Charles Wesley (1707‑1788)

                             And others

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Step by step James Montgomery takes us through Christ's passion. We go with our Lord to the Garden of Gethsemane, where those troublesome thoughts of death assailed Him. While His trusted friends drifted off to sleep, Jesus fought off the temptation to avoid the Cross. It was a difficult time, and in Montgomery's simple text we feel each drop of sweat.


At Jesus' trial‑a shabby excuse for justice if ever,'there was one‑He bore the beating and badgering without speaking a word. He was carrying our sins with Him to the Cross. At the Cross we can only fall at His feet in worship.


When we finally reach the tomb we find He is not there. There is a moment of confusion‑who has taken Him? ‑before the truth dawns on us. He is risen!


At each point of this journey we have much to learn from our Savior. We can learn to pray when tempted and to endure suffering with patience. And Christ teaches us to rise in newness of life, to live in a way that honors Him, and ultimately to join Him in glory.




Go to dark Gethsemane,

Ye that feel the tempter's power;

Your Redeemer's conflict see;

Watch with Him one bitter hour;

Turn not from His griefs away;

Learn of Jesus Christ to pray.


See Him at the judgment hall,

Beaten, bound, reviled, arraigned;

See Him meekly bearing all!

Love to man His soul sustained.

Shun not suffering, shame, or loss;

Learn of Christ to bear the cross.


Calvary's mournful mountain climb;

There adoring at His feet,

Mark that miracle of time,

God's own sacrifice complete;

"it is finished!" hear Him cry;

Learn of Jesus Christ to die.


Early hasten to the tomb

Where they laid His breathless clay:

All is solitude and gloom;

Who hath taken Him away?

Christ is risen! He meets our eyes.

Savior, teach us so to rise.


James Montgomery (1771‑1854)

   United Methodist Hymnal #290

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"Why should I worship a dead Jew?"

This challenging question was posed in 1932 by a young Jewish man who had been attending evangelistic services conducted by Alfred Ackley (1887-1960) in California. That question played on Alfred’s mind as he prepared his Easter Sunday message. Rising early to prepare for the day, Alfred flipped on the radio as he shaved and was astonished to hear a famous liberal preacher in New York say: "Good morning—it’s Easter! You know, folks, it really doesn’t make any difference to me if Christ be risen or not. As far as I’m concerned, His body could be a dust in some Palestinian tomb. The main thing is, His truth goes marching on!"


Alfred wanted to fling the radio across the room. "It’s a lie!" he exclaimed. His wife rushed into the bathroom, asking, "Why are you shouting so early in the morning?"


"Didn’t you hear what the good-for-nothing preacher said?" Alfred replied.


That morning, Ackley preached with great vigor on the reality of Christ’s Resurrection, but later that night, he was still thinking about his friend’s question and the morning’s radio sermon. "Listen here, Alfred Ackley," his wife said at last. "It’s time you did that which you can do best. Why don’t you write a song about it and then maybe you’ll feel better?"


Alfred went to his study, opened his Bible, and re-read the Resurrection account from Mark’s Gospel. A thrill went through him, and he began writing the words to "He Lives" (Hymn 310). A few minutes later, he was at the piano putting it to music. It has been a favorite of evangelical congregations ever since.

He Lives

(Verse 1) I serve a risen Savior, he’s in the world today;

I know that he is living, whatever foes may say.

I see his hand of mercy, I hear his voice of cheer,

and just the time I need him, he’s always near.


(Chorus) He lives, he lives, Christ Jesus lives today!

He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way.

He lives, he lives, salvation to impart!

You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.

Thoughts from Sten Bolander

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Tradition has it that John Bowring‑linguist, author, and British governor of Hong Kong‑was inspired to write this hymn by the sight of a huge cross on the ruins of a cathedral at Macao on the south Chinese coast. Apparently, the cathedral, built by Portuguese colonists, had been leveled by a typhoon, but the wall with this bronze cross remained standing. The story is unverified, but the image is a strong one‑ the cross "towering o'er the wrecks of time" above the shore at Macao.




In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o'er the wrecks of time;

All the light of sacred story

Gathers round its head sublime.


When the woes of life o'ertake me,

Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,

Never shall the cross forsake me;

Lo! it glows with peace and joy.


When the sun of bliss is beaming

Light and love upon my way,

From the Cross the radiance streaming

Adds more luster to the day.


Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,

By the Cross are sanctified;

Peace is there, that knows no measure,

Joys that through all time abide.


In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o'er the wrecks of time;

All the Light of sacred story

Gathers round its head sublime.


John Bowring (1792‑1872)

                            Hymn #295

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Reginald Heber wrote this hymn specifically for use in the service before the Eucharist. Its simple lines focus first on Christ and then on the attitude of the singer. Christ has spoken words of life and has taken our sins to the cross with Him. We are sorry for our sins and take this "feast" of bread and wine as a "token" of the forgiveness that Christ offers.


For sixteen years Heber served as a parish priest in the village of Hodnet in western England. Three times he was asked to become the bishop of Calcutta, India, and twice he turned it down. Finally at the age of forty, he accepted the call and sailed for India with his wife and two daughters. Three years later, after preaching to a crowded church near Hindu shrines to Vishnu and Siva, he suffered a stroke and died.


While Heber's hymns initially met with official church resistance, many of them were eventually published shortly before his death and have been a blessing to believers for nearly two centuries.





Bread of the world, in mercy broken,

Wine of the soul, in mercy shed,

By whom the words of life were spoken,

And in whose death our sins are dead:

Look on the heart by sorrow broken,

Look on the tears by sinners shed;

And be Thy feast to us the token

That by Thy grace our souls are fed.


Reginald Heber (1783‑1826)

                            Hymn #624

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Although Bernard was one of the most influential Christians of the Middle Ages, settling disputes between kings and influencing the selection of popes, he remained a devout monk, single‑minded in his devotion to Christ. Even the great reformer Martin Luther, who as a rule disliked medieval theologians, said, "Bernard loved Jesus as much as anyone can."


In his own day Bernard was known as a preacher and churchman; today he is remembered for his hymns of praise. "0 Sacred Head, Now Wounded" comes from a poem originally having seven sections, each focusing on a wounded part of the crucified Savior's body‑His feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and head. The text of this hymn compels us to gaze at the cross until the depth of God's love overwhelms us. Bernard's hymn pictures God's love, not as an abstract theological statement, but as a profoundly personal and awesome vision of the suffering Christ.



0 sacred Head, now wounded,

With grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded

With thorns Thine only crown:

How pale Thou art with anguish,

With sore abuse and scorn!

How does that visage languish

Which once was bright as morn!


What Thou, my Lord, has suffered

Was all for sinners' gain;

Mine, mine was the transgression,

But Thine the deadly pain.

Lo, here I fall, my Savior!

'Tis I deserve Thy place;

Look on me with Thy favor,

Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.


What language shall I borrow

To thank Thee, dearest Friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow,

Thy pity without end?

0 make me Thine forever;

And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never

Outlive my love to Thee.


                                  Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091‑1153)

Translated from Latin into German by Paul Gerhardt (1607‑1676)

Translated into English by John Waddell Alexander (1804‑1859)

                                                                                              Hymn #286

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Cincinnati, Ohio was the birthplace of this favorite hymn. Fanny Crosby, the prolific blind poetess, was visiting her friend and collaborator, William H. Doane in his home. The sun was setting, and though Crosby could not see the changing light, she could certainly hear and feel the hush of twilight. Their conversation turned to the nearness of God. Crosby was touched by their talk and wrote the words of this hymn before she retired that night. Doane added the music in the morning.


It may be that the "friend to friend" communion of the third stanza is an allusion to Crosby's fine friendship with Doane. If a mere human can be such a friend, how much greater would a friendship be with the Author of love, the Lord of all!


Crosby had a talent for focusing attention on Christ, and on the glories of eternal life with Him. In that way, she opened the eyes of believers everywhere.




I am Thine, 0 Lord, I have heard Thy voice,

And it told Thy love to me;

But I long to rise in the arms of faith,

And be closer drawn to Thee.


Draw me nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,

To the cross where Thou hast died,

Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,

To Thy precious bleeding side.


Consecrate me now to Thy service, Lord,

By the pow'r of grace divine;

Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope,

And my will be lost in Thine.


0, the pure delight of a single hour

That before Thy throne I spend,

When I kneel in prayer, and with Thee, my God,

I commune as friend with friend!


There are depths of love that I cannot know

Till I cross the narrow sea;

There are heights of joy that I may not reach

Till I rest in peace with Thee.


Fanny Jane Crosby (1820‑1915)

                                      Hymn #419

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 Elizabeth Cecelia Clephane spent her whole life in Scotland. Daughter of a county sheriff, she grew up in the village of Melrose. She suffered from poor health most of her life, but that didn't keep her from serving others. She regularly helped the poor and those with disabilities, even selling a horse and carriage to give more money. Her cheery attitude and selfless spirit earned her the nickname, "The Sunbeam of Melrose."


She wrote eight hymns in her lifetime, including "The Ninety and Nine." A Presbyterian,Clephane filled her hymns with biblical images. In this hymn, she gathers various biblical examples of restoration and protection, uniting them with the benefits of the Cross. Thus the Cross becomes a rock that offers shade to the desert traveler. It's a home in the wilderness, a rest stop for the exhausted wanderer.


The "two wonders" that the author confesses in this hymn are Christ's love and her own unworthiness. These are common themes for Christian writers. Even the apostle Paul suggested that someone might give his life for a good person, but marveled that God showed His love to us "while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8)




Beneath the cross of Jesus

I fain would take my stand

The shadow of a mighty Rock

Within a weary land;

A home within the wilderness,

A rest upon the way,

From the burning of the noontide heat,

And the burden of the day.


Upon that cross of Jesus

Mine eye at times can see

The very dying form of One

Who suffered there for me;

And from my smitten heart with tears

Two wonders I confess

The wonders of redeeming love

And my unworthiness.


I take, 0 cross, thy shadow

For my abiding place;

I ask no other sunshine than

The sunshine of His face;

Content to the world go by,

To know no gain nor loss,

My sinful self my only shame,

My glory all the cross.


Elizabeth Cecelia Clephane (1830‑1869)

                                                Hymn #297

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At twenty‑two, Ray.Palmer was having a tough year. He wanted to go into the ministry but was stuck teaching at a girls' school in New York City. He was lonely, depressed, and sick. Then he found a German poem about a sinner kneeling before the cross. He translated it and added four stanzas.


"I wrote the verses with tender emotion," he said later. "There was not the slightest thought of writing for another eye, least of all writing a hymn for Christian worship."


Two years later, while visiting Boston, he ran across his friend Lowell Mason. Mason, a major figure in American music in the early 1800s, was preparing a new hymnal. He asked Palmer if he'd like to contribute anything. Palmer bashfully showed Mason these verses. "You may live many years and do many good things," Mason said, "but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author of "My Faith Looks Up to Thee."'




My faith looks up to Thee,

Thou Lamb of Calvary.

Savior divine!

Now hear me while I pray,

Take all my guilt away,

0 let me from this day

Be wholly Thine!


May Thy rich grace impart

Strength to my fainting heart,

My zeal inspire;

As Thou hast died for me,

0 may my love to Thee

Pure, warm, and changeless be,

A living fire!


While life's dark maze I tread

And griefs around me spread,

Be Thou my guide;

Bid darkness turn to day,

Wipe sorrow's tears away,

Nor let me ever stray

From Thee aside.


When ends life's passing dream,

When death's cold, threatening stream

Shall o'er me roll,

Blest Savior, then, in love,

Fear and distrust remove;

0 lift me safe above,

A ransomed soul!


Ray Palmer (1808‑1887)

                     Hymn #452

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