“Come, Sinner, Come”


“Whereunto He called you by our gospel…” (2 Thess. 2:14)

INTRO.: A song that pleads with sinners to respond to the call of Christ in the gospel is “Come, Sinner, Come” (#324 in Hymns for Worship Revised, #641 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by William Ellsworth Witter, who was born to Ebenezer and Hannah Ellsworth Witter on Dec. 9, 1854 (some sources give 1853), at La Grange, NY, about four miles south of Covington in New York state’s Wyoming Valley. Not a whole lot of information is available about him. He attended the New York State Normal School at Genesee to become a schoolteacher and was deeply touched by the tragic death in 1876 of songwriter Philip Paul Bliss. In 1877, at the age of 23, he was at home nursing his ailing mother through her last illness and at the same time was teaching a term of school, while living on his family’s farm in the western hills of New York.

Quite familiar with the songs of Bliss because of a biography of that songwriter in the home, Witter prayed that he might be inspired to write such hymns as those of Bliss that would touch hearts and lead them to Christ. One Saturday afternoon, while thinking anxiously about two of his pupils, he was bunching hay which had been mown along the roadside, and the words of this song, along with a tune, came into his mind. Hastening from the hayfield into the farmhouse, he ran upstairs and knelt beside the bed of a brother, for whose salvation his mother had been praying. Still upon his knees, he transcribed the words to paper right then and there. The original first line read, “While Jesus whispers to you.” The tune (Hamartoloi or The Divine Call) was composed, apparently for this text, by Horatio Richmond Palmer (1834-1907). Palmer is best remembered for being the author and composer of “Yield Not to Temptation” and providing music for such favorites as “Peace, Be Still!” and “Angry Words.”

Later Witter wrote that Palmer’s tune was almost identical with the music that he had first envisioned. “Come, Sinner, Come” was copyrighted in 1879 and included in Palmer’s Book of Anthems, but became well known after its appearances in Sacred Songs and Solos of 1881 and Gospel Hymns No. 5 of 1882, both edited by Ira David Sankey. Witter went on to attend the University of Rochester where he graduated in 1880, and from there the Rochester Baptist Theological Seminary, becoming a Baptist minister in 1884. Evidently, he later served as a missionary in India, because his works include an Outline Grammar of the Lhota Naga Language, published at Calcutta, India, in 1888, and a History and Progress of Modern Medical Missions, published around 1895. Also, he wrote My Refuge, a book of religious poetry, in 1902. A 1915 list of University of Rochester alumni gave his address as Jorhat in Assam, India, and he died in 1931.

Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, the song has appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1938 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 1959 Majestic Hymnal No. 2 and the 1978 Hymns of Praise both edited by Reuel Lemmons; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; the 1965 Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 edited by Tillit S. Teddlie; the 1971 Songs of the Church and the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed. both 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; the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat; the 2009 Favorite Songs of the Church edited by Robert J. Taylor Jr.; and the 2012 Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs edited by Steve Wolfgang et. al.; in addition to Hymns for Worship and Sacred Selections.

The song asks those who are sinners to come to Christ for salvation.
I. Stanza 1 says that the sinner should come to Jesus now.
While Jesus whispers to you, Come, sinner, come!
While we are praying for you, Come, sinner, come!
Now is the time to own Him: Come, sinner, come!
Now is the time to know Him: Come, sinner, come!
A. Some editors, such as Ellis J. Crum in Sacred Selections and Shepard and Stevens in Hymns for Worship, have changed the first line to read, “While through His word He calls you,” probably to avoid any possible wrong conclusion that Jesus calls us by whispering directly into our hearts. However, if we can sing, “While we feast, Christ gently whispers, ‘Do this in my memory,’” understanding that Jesus figuratively whispers this to us through the written word, then people can also understand that Jesus figuratively whispers to the sinner through the written word as well. The important thing to remember is that Jesus calls sinners to repentance: Matt. 9:12-13
B. In addition, Christians are praying for sinners to be saved: Rom. 10:1
C. Jesus is calling and Christians are praying for sinners to come now because, as Paul said, now is the day of salvation: 2 Cor. 6:2

II. Stanza 2 says that the sinner should come to Jesus for redemption.
Are you too heavy laden? Come, sinner, come!
Jesus will bear your burden: Come, sinner, come!
Jesus will not deceive you: Come, sinner, come!
Jesus can now redeem you: Come, sinner, come!
A. The reason we need to come to Jesus is that we are heavy laden with sin: Matt. 11:28-30
B. If we do come to Him, He will bear our burdens: 1 Pet. 5:7
C. The basis for this is that He came to redeem us: Gal. 4:4-5

III. Stanza 3 says that the sinner should come to Jesus to receive His blessings.
O hear His tender pleading: Come, sinner, come!
Come and receive the blessing: Come, sinner, come!
While Jesus whispers to you, Come, sinner, come!
While we are praying for you, Come, sinner, come!
A. The reason that Jesus is pleading with sinners is because He came to seek and save the lost: Lk. 19:10
B. If we come to Him, we can receive His blessing because all spiritual blessings are in Christ: Eph. 1:3
C. Again, Sacred Selections and Hymns for Worship change line five of this stanza, saying, “While Jesus now invites you…”, but we understand that whether whispering or inviting, this is done through the invitation revealed in the word by the Spirit and proclaimed by the church His bride: Rev. 22:17

CONCL.: Helen Cadbury Alexander, wife of song director Charles M. Alexander, added a couple of extra stanzas (usually placed before Witter’s final stanza):
3. Why will you longer doubt Him? Come, sinner, come!
What will you do without Him? Come, sinner, come!
For you His heart is yearning, Come, sinner, come!
Why not to Him be turning? Come, sinner, come!
4. Far off you may have wandered, Come, sinner, come!
God’s gifts you may have squandered, Come, sinner, come!
Cease now, your heart to harden, Come, sinner, come!
Jesus will freely pardon, Come, sinner, come!
The purpose of this song is to speak to one out of Christ who needs to be saved and say, “Come, Sinner, Come.”


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