(picture of Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan Norton)
“OVER THE RIVER”
“…On either side of the river, was the tree of life…” (Rev. 22:2)
The text was written, under the pseudonym of Lidie H. Edmunds, by Eliza Edmunds Hewitt (1851-1920). A native and life-long resident of Philadelphia, PA, she was the daughter of James Stratton Hewitt, a sea captain, and Zeruiah Edmunds Hewitt. After attending the public schools of Philadelphia, she graduated valedictorian of her class at the Girl’s Normal School of Philadelphia, and became a school teacher. A spinal condition, that resulted when a boy being disciplined struck her in the back with a heavy slate, caused her to be an invalid for an extended period, and she was put in a heavy cast for six months. during which time she wrote Sunday School literature and children’s poems. John R. Sweney saw some of her work and wrote to her asking for some contributions which he could put to music. After getting her body cast off and being allowed a walk in the nearby park, she wrote “There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today” in thankfulness at the joy of being able to get about again. Her condition eventually improved and she was able to return to an active life and became a superintendent at the Northern Home for Friendless Children. “Over the River” was first published in Songs of Love and Praise No. 2 for Use in Meetings for Christian Worship or Work, 1895, where the music was arranged by editor William James Kirkpatrick.
The tune (Juanita) is said to be a “Spanish Air” or “Spanish Melody” for which a famous popular song entitled “Juanita” was written by an English feminist, social reformer, and author of the early and mid-nineteenth century named Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan Norton (1808 – 1877). Caroline was born in London, England, to Thomas Sheridan and Caroline Henrietta Callander Sheridan. Her father was an actor, soldier, and colonial administrator, and the son of the prominent Irish playwright and Whig statesman Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Her mother was Scottish, the daughter of a landed gentleman, Col. Sir James Callander of Craigforth, and Lady Elizabeth MacDonnell, the sister of an Irish peer, the 1st Marquess of Antrim. In 1827, Caroline married George Chapple Norton, barrister, M.P. for Guildford, and the younger brother of Lord Grantley. “Juanita,” a love song variously subtitled “A Spanish Ballad”, “A Song of Spain”, and others, was first published in 1855, attributed to Mrs. Norton, with music adapted by T. G. May. The opening four-bar phrase of the song appears similar to Handel’s aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” in the opera Rinaldo, although the subsequent melody differs from that of the aria. Following the death of George Norton in 1875, Caroline married an old friend, Scottish historical writer and politician Sir W. Stirling Maxwell in March of 1877 and died in London three months later.
The song “Juanita” was a favorite for many years with a lot of people. It was found in the old school songbook that we used in our elementary school music classes when I was growing up. Barney Fife, played by Don Knotts, used to sing it over the telephone to one of his girlfriends, Juanita Beasley at the Bluebird Diner in Mayberry, on the old Andy Griffith television show. Mrs. Norton’s original lyrics were as follows:
- Soft o’er the fountain Lingering falls the Southern moon,
Far o’er the mountain, Breaks the day too soon!
In thy dark eyes splendor, Where the warm light loves to dwell,
Weary looks yet tender, Speak their fond farewell.
Nita! Juanita! Ask thy soul if we should part!
Nita! Juanita! Lean thou on my heart.
- When in thy dreaming, Moons like these shall shine again,
And daylight beaming, Prove thy dreams are vain,
Wilt thou not relenting, For thine absent lover’s sigh,
In thy heart consenting, To a prayer gone by?
Nita! Juanita! Let me linger by thy side!
Nita! Juanita! Be my own fair bride.
It was very much in vogue during the latter part of the nineteenth century for gospel song writers to provide sacred lyrics for popular melodies. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, “Over the River” appeared in the 1960 Hymnal edited by Marion Davis.
The song likens death to crossing over a river.
- Stanza 1 mentions that Jesus will help us cross over the river
Over the river hangs a cloud so dark and drear,
Till Jesus comforts, till His voice we hear;
Then His smile, illuming, floods the waves with golden light.
Then a path of glory opens to the sight.
- Over the river hangs a cloud so dark and drear because death is the last enemy: 1 Cor. 15:25-26
- But even in the face of death, the Lord offers us comfort: 2 Cor. 1:3-4
- With this comfort, death then becomes a path to glory: Ps. 73:24
II. Stanza 2 tells us that we shall be reunited with loved ones when we cross over the river.
Over the river loved ones pass from day to day
To realms immortal, bear our hearts away;
O the sweet reunions, just beyond the swelling tide!
O the songs of welcome, on the other side!
- Over the river loved ones pass because it is appointed for each person to die once: Heb. 9:27
- Thus, we are separated from them and miss them: 1 Thess. 4:13
- But what a sweet reunion when Christ comes, raises the dead, and takes us all up in the clouds: 1 Thess. 4:16-17
III. Stanza 3 says that we shall hear the blissful chords of heaven after crossing over the river.
Over the river blissful chords of music float;
Over the river sounds the harp’s glad note.
There, at home with Jesus, endless ages of delight;
There the shining mansions, robes of radiant white.
- Over the river sound the blissful chords as the redeemed join with the angels in song: Rev. 5:8-12
- Then, we shall be at home with Jesus: Phil. 1:23
- And we shall dwell together in the shining mansions: Jn. 14:1-3
CONCL.: The chorus reminds us the blessings to be found over the river.
Over the river,
Savior, close beside us stand,
Over the river,
To the heavenly land.
God is not willing that anyone should perish, so He gave His Son to die for our sins so that by obtaining forgiveness and living according to His will, we can have the hope of living forever with Him “Over the River.”