“I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”

"On the sea of glass…and they sing…the song of the Lamb…" (Rev. 15.2-3)

     INTRO.: A song which speaks about what will be sung by the sea of glass is "I Will Sing The Wondrous Story" (#149 in Hymns for Worship Revised and #22 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Francis Harold Rowley, who was born on July 25, 1854, in Hilton, NY. The son of Dr. John R. and Mary Jane Smith Rowley, he was educated at the University of Rochester and Rochester Theological Seminary, becoming a Baptist minister. His first two works were Baptist Churches in Titusville, PA, from 1879 to 1884, and North Adams, MA, from 1884 to 1892. It was while he was minister of the First Baptist Church of North Adams that he produced this hymn in 1886. The church was having a revival which caused the whole community to experience a period of unusual interest in religious matters. Rowley was being assisted by a young musician of Swiss-Bavarian parentage who served as the song director, Peter Philip Bilhorn (1865-1936).

     One Sunday following the service, Bilhorn asked Rowley to write a hymn for which he could provide the music. The following night, these stanzas came to him, and he gave them to Bilhorn who later composed the tune (Wondrous Story). Sometime afterwards, Bilhorn went to Brooklyn, NY, to meet with the famous song-leader, hymn-writer, and music publisher George Coles Stebbins (1840-1908). Stebbins asked if Bilhorn had any songs which he had written, and he showed him the one that he and Rowley had produced. Stebbins offered to render Bilhorn any assistance that he needed with regard to his singing and music, without charge, and Bilhorn accepted. Since Bilhorn had not studied any harmony to that point, Stebbins harmonized the song for him and then took him to see another famous song-leader, hymn-writer, and music publisher, Ira David Sankey (1840-1908). They showed the song to Sankey, who was impressed with it and thought that it would be useful.

     So Bilhorn, with Rowley’s approval, presented it as a gift to Sankey. It was first published in Sankey’s Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs No. 5 in 1887. Rowley’s original poem had begun, "Can’t You Sing the Wondrous Story," but when it was published by Sankey it was changed to "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story." This and other alterations in the original text were made apparently without the author’s knowledge or consent by Sankey, but the song in this form has been very popular. Following this, Rowley served Baptist Churches in Oak Park, IL, from 1892 to 1896; Fall River, MA, from 1896 to 1900; and Boston, MA, from 1900 to 1910.  Following his retirement from the ministry in 1910, he was elected president of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruely to Animals and remained in this capacity until 1945 when, at the age of 91, he was made chairman of the board. He died at Boston on Feb. 14, 1952.

     Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1940 Complete Christian Hymnal edited by Marion Davis; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.

     It gives several reasons for singing the wondrous story.

I. Stanza 1 says that we should sing it because it tells of Christ who died for us
"I will sing the wondrous story of the Christ who died for me,
How He left His home in glory For the cross of Calvary."
 A. The most wondrous story ever told is that Christ died for us: Rom. 5.8, 1 Cor. 15.3-4
 B. In order to do this, He left His home in glory: Phil. 2.5-8
 C. And His death upon the cross of Calvary is the means by which we have redemption from our sins: 1 Cor. 1.18-21

II. Stanza 2 says that we should sing it because we were lost but Jesus found us
"I was lost, but Jesus found me, Found the sheep that went astray;
Threw His loving arms around me, Drew me back into His way."
 A. All responsible human beings are lost because they have sinned: Rom. 3.23, 6.23
 B. But just as a shepherd goes in search of his sheep that has gone astray and brings it back, so Jesus is the good Shepherd who came to seek and save the lost: Lk. 15.4-5, 19.10
 C. And the means by which He draws us back into His way is the teaching of the gospel message, which we must believe and obey: Jn. 6.44-45

III. Stanza 3 says that we should sing it because Jesus healed us when we were bruised.
"I was bruised, but Jesus healed me; Faint was I from many a fall;
Sight was gone, and fears possessed me, But He freed me from them all."
 A. Jesus is also pictured as the great Physician who came to heal those who are spiritually sick: Mk. 2:16-17
 B. When we are in sin, we are pictured as spiritually blind: 2 Cor. 4:3-4
 C. However, He can cure us becuase He frees us from the sins that cause this condition: Rom. 6:17-18

IV. Stanza 4 says that we should sing it because Jesus is with us when days of darkness come over us
"Days of darkness still come o’er me, Sorrows paths I often tread,
But the Savior still is with me; By His hand I’m safely led."
 A. Even as Christians who have been saved by the blood of the Lamb, as long as we live on this earth we shall have our share of darkness and sorrow: Ps. 90:10
 B. However, during all our trials and difficulties in this life, Jesus has promised to be with us as we do His will: Matt. 28:18-20
 C. Therefore, we can trust Him to lead us by His hand: Ps. 139:9-10

V. Stanza 5 says that we should sing it because He will keep us until death
"He will keep me till the river Rolls its waters at my feet;
Then He’ll bear me safely over Where the loved ones I shall meet."
 A. "The river" here refers poetically to death; quite often in religious poetry death is symbolized as standing between us and heaven as the Jordan River stood between the people of Israel and their promised rest in Canaan: Josh. 6.13-17
 B. Then, at death, He will bear us safely over to the other side–cf.: Lk. 16.22
 C. And if we have been faithful until death, Christ will not only be with us in death but also take us home to live with Him and the saints of all ages beside the eternal river of life: Rev. 2.10, 22.1-5

     CONCL.: Some books have changed phrases such as, "Where the loved ones I shall meet" to "the saved ones" under the assumption that "loved ones" refer only to relatives and that most of us do have "loved ones" who are not saved and will not be in heaven. However, many of us also have "loved ones" in the flesh who were faithful Christians and we hope to see them again. And all of the "saved ones" whom I know I also consider "loved ones" as well and I hope to meet them in heaven too. So I do not see the problem with singing about seeing our "loved ones" there. Because of all the reasons stated in the stanzas to sing praises to Jesus here, the chorus says:
"Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story Of the Christ who died for me,
Sing it with the saints in glory, Gathered by the crystal sea."
Thus, if I, having obeyed the gospel and received all the spiritual blessings available through him, will sing the praises of Jesus Christ in this life because He died for me, found me when I was lost, and will bear me safely over the river of death into the eternal promised land, then, as the chorus says, I can have the hope of being among that number who stand around the throne of God in heaven beside the crystal sea where forever "I Will Sing The Wondrous Story."


3 thoughts on ““I Will Sing the Wondrous Story”

  1. Hi. Me again. I blogged you on the 21st about Daniel March's hymn. Here's another historical note for you. Today is the 155th anniversary of the birth of Francis Rowley, who authored "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story." Thanks for your thorough analysis of the words in the light of Scripture. Keep up the good work!


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