“O Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

"Samuel took a stone, and set it…and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us" (1 Sam. 7.12)

     INTRO.: Many of the hymns that we sing contain specific scriptural allusions and seek to make application of those allusions to us. A song which uses the imagery of Samuel’s setting up a stone whose name, Ebenezer, meant, "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us," is "O Thou Fount of Every Blessing" (#420 in Hymns for Worship Revised and #545 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Robert Robinson, who was born into humble circumstances at Swaffham in Norfolk, England, on Sept. 27, 1735. His father died when he was eight, and in 1749 at age fourteen he was sent by his mother to London as an apprentice to a barber. There for several years he became associated with a notorious gang of hoodlums and led a debauched life. However, in 1752, at the age of seventten, he heard a sermon preached by George Whitefield. He and his friends had gone to the meeting for the purpose of scoffing at religion, but Whitefield’s strong message impressed him. After three years of spiritual turmoil, he professed Christianity in 1855 and shortly afterwards, at age twenty, became minister of a Calvinistic Methodist chapel at Mindenhall in Suffolk. However, a few months later, he left the Calvinistic Methodists and organized an Independent congregation at Norwich in Suffolk, probably in association with Selena, the Countess of Huntington. This hymn was produced in either 1757 or most likely 1758 to show gratitude to God for saving him from a life of dissipation. It first appeared in A Collection of Hymns used by the Church of Christ in Angel Alley, Bishopsgate, published in 1759.

     The song was originally in five stanzas, but the third and fifth were omitted in the 1760 Psalms and Hymns by Martin Madan, and this practice has been almost universally adopted since. The original began, "Come, Thou Fount of every blessing." There was some speculation that it might have been written by the Countess of Huntington, but scholars now agree that it was the work of Robinson. In 1759, he again changed religious affiliation and became minister at the Stone Yard Baptist Church in Cambridge, where he remained until his retirement in 1790, in which year he also published his History of the Baptists. With very little formal education, he became known as a prominent preacher, scholar, and writer who also bought a farm and managed it on the side. In his later years, he became a friend of Joseph Priestly, the Unitarian philosopher, who greatly influenced his life, some think perhaps to more liberal theological views. There is a story, unconfirmed, that not long before his death, Robinson was riding a stagecoach and noticed a woman engrossed in a hymnbook. During their conversation the woman asked him what he thought of the hymn that she was singing. He is said to have burst out in tears and replied, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many hears ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feeling that I had then."  Others tend to doubt whether Priestly’s influence led Robinson into unorthodoxy.

     Robinson died at Showell Green in Warwickshire, England, on June 9, 1790. The tune (Nettleton or Hallelujah) is a traditional American melody often attributed to Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844). He was a well known evangelist of early nineteenth century America who included Robinson’s hymn in his popular 1825 Village Melodies for Social Worship.  However, the book contained no music and there is no evidence that Nettleton was known as a composer or produced any tunes in his life. The first appearance of the tune was in the 1813 Repository of Sacred Music: Part Second, compiled by Massachusetts printer John Wyeth (1770-1858). In the index, no composer’s name is given, but it is identified as a new tune, leading to speculation that Wyeth may have composed it, although it seems that he was not known as a tune composer either but published his tunebook strictly as a business venture "for the use of Christian churches." Thus, it is not known precisely where the tune came from nor who was responsible for it. Some sources have credited it to the French philosopher and amateur musician Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).  Others suggest that a friend of Nettleton’s may have composed it and named it in his honor.

     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 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; 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 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. Various alterations have been made in the text through the years. The last four lines of the first stanza originally read:
"Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love."
Why these changes have been made in our books is not known. The original lines five and six of the third stanza read:
"Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love."
These were likely amended because they sounded a lot like total hereditary depravity. The source of these changes has not been identified, but the text that we use is that found in most of our hymnbooks.

     The hymn praises the Lord as the source of everything good.

I. Stanza 1 points out that the Lord is the fount of every blessing
"O, Thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me ever to adore Thee; May I still Thy goodness prove,
While the hope of endless glory Fills my heart with joy and love."
 A. God opened a fountain for our salvation: Zech. 13.1; and is the giver of every good gift: Eph. 1.3, Jas. 1.17
 B. All these blessings call for songs of loudest praise: Heb. 13.15
 C. In so doing, we prove His goodness: Rom. 12.1 (In the book from which Ellis Crum apparently cut and pasted the song into Sacred Selections, this stanza read, "May I still MY goodness prove," prompting the objection that in the midst of a song praising God, all of a sudden we are singing about our own goodness; this was corrected in a later edition)

II. Stanza 2 points out that the Lord is our helper
"Here I raise my Ebenezer: Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope by Thy good pleasure Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wandering from the fold of God;
He to rescue me from danger Interposed His precious blood."
 A. The story of Samuel raising up the stone at Ebenezer is used to remind us that it is by God’s help that we have made whatever progress we have: Rom. 8.31-32 (one book, the editor saying that the reference to Ebenezer is not meaningful to contemporary congregations, changed the stanze to read:
"Hitherto Thy love has blest me; Thou hast brought me to this place.
And I know Thy hand will bring me Safely home by Thy good grace."
However, to me, this is just giving in to Biblical illiteracy. Even the editors of the Methodist Hymnal, who have been known to alter hymns in an attempt to update the language, or sometimes to make them politically correct, said that when they were presented with the same objection they were not able to supply any alternative that was consistent with the context of the hymn and the passage of scripture that it is based upon)
 B. One way that God has helped us is by sending Jesus to seek us: Lk. 19.10
 C. And in so doing, He interposed His precious blood: Eph. 1.7

III. Stanza 3 points out that the Lord shows us kindness even in our sorrows
"Sorrowing I shall be in spirit, Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit, Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
How His kindness yet pursues me Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me I cannot proclaim it well."
 A. As long as we are in this life, our days will be few and full of trouble or sorrow: Job 14.1
 B. Yet, if we follow God’s will, His kindness will pursue us: Ps. 31.21
 C. Even though we cannot proclaim it well, we can sing praises God even in our trials: Ps. 27.6

IV. Stanza 4 points out that the Lord is our Savior because of His grace
"O, to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Never let me wander from Thee, Never leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O, taken and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above."
 A. We are debtors because we are saved by grace: Eph. 2.8-9
 B. But it is still possible for us to wander, so we should also look to God’s grace to bind our hearts to Him so that He will keep us for salvation: 1 Pet. 1.5
 C. Therefore, we should ask Him to help us not to wander from Him: Mt. 6.13

V. Stanza 5 points out that the Lord is the source of our hope for eternal life
"O that day when freed from sinning, I shall see Thy lovely Face;
Richly clothed (or Cloth-ed then) in blood-washed linen, How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace.
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry, Take my ransomed soul away; Send thine
angels now to carry Me to realms of endless day."
 A. While it may seem repulsive to some, the Bible says that there will come a day when the redeemed in heaven wil have their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb: Rev. 7.13-14
 B. With this hope, we can look forward to the time of the Lord’s coming: Tit. 2.13-14
 C. And even before then, we can look forward to that time when in death the angels will carry us to realms of endless day: Lk. 16.22

     CONCL.: Several scholars, such as Edmund S. Lorenz, have suggested that the song was actually improved by the omission of the final stanza, but the editors of the Methodist Hymnal noted that this unfortunately eliminates the apolcalyptic climax of the author’s invitatory request. Returning to the Biblical allusion, we see that when Samuel was judge in Israel, sometimes the people strayed from the Lord. So Samuel gathered them together at Mizpah where he called on them to return to the Lord and prayed for them. The Philistines attacked, but rather than trusting in themselves, the Israelites called on the Lord who defeated the enemy. It was then that Samuel erected the stone which he called Ebenezer, the "stone of help." Each one of us raises his own Ebenezer from time to time when we praise our God, saying, "O Thou Fount Of Every Blessing."


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