Sweet the Moments, Rich in Blessing

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(picture of Walter Shirley)

SWEET THE MOMENTS, RICH IN BLESSING

“The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich” (Proverbs 10:22)

     INTRO.:  A hymn which reminds us of how rich the Lord’s blessings make us is “Sweet the Moments, Rich in Blessing.”  The original text was written by James Allen, who was born on June 24, 1734, at Gayle, near Wensleydale in Yorkshire, England. The son of Oswald Allen, an ancestor of an earlier Oswald Allen, James was educated with a view to taking Holy Orders, first with two different ministers at different times, and then for one year at St. John’s College, Cambridge. Leaving Cambridge in 1752, he became a follower of Benjamin Ingham, founder of the Inghamite sect. He subsequently joined himself to the Sandemanians, and finally built a chapel on his estate at Gayle, ministering there the rest of his life. He published a small volume, Christian Songs, with 17 hymns, and was the editor and principal contributor to the 1757 Kendal Hymn Book and the Appendix to the second edition in 1761. Allen published the original version of this hymn beginning “O How Happy Are the Moments” in the Kendal Hymn Book of 1757.  He died on October 31, 1804, at Gayle.

In its present form this hymn was wrought out of a bitter experience in the life of Walter Shirley, who was born on September 23, 1725, at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire, England.  Walter was the fourth son of Laurence Shirley (son of the 1st Earl Ferrers, and cousin of the Countess of Huntingdon). In 1742, he matriculated at New College, Oxford. He graduated with a B.A. in 1746, and, after preaching with great success in England, that same year became minister of Loughrea, County Galway, Ireland, where he continued to exercise his ministry for many years.  He was a friend of Whitefield and the Wesleys, often preaching in their chapels. Some time after that, his brother, the Earl of Ferrars, a man of evil habits, engaged in a quarrel with one of his servants, who had long been in his employ, and in the passion of his anger he murdered the old man. He was at once imprisoned; and Shirley, though mortified by the terrible disgrace which the revolting crime had brought upon his family, journeyed to his brother’s prison and remained near him during the distressing weeks that followed. The Earl was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged at Tyburn. After the execution Shirley, worn out by his long vigil and humiliated in spirit, returned to his church, finding comfort only in the cross of Jesus Christ.   Discovering an imperfect expression of his emotions at that time in a hymn, “O How Happy Are the Moments,” by James Allen, he adapted and revised the hymn so completely that it became practically a new composition, truly poetic in language and form, and tenderly eloquent of his own experience, publishing it in 1770. In 1774, he helped the Countess of Huntingdon revise the collection of hymns used in her chapels.  He published one volume of sermons and two poems.  His last sickness was of a lingering character, and it is related of him that when no longer able to leave his house he used to preach, seated in his chair in his drawing room, to many who gladly assembled to hear. Shirley died on April 7, 1786, in Dublin, Ireland, of dropsy.

Several tunes have been found with the hymn. The 1945 United Brethren in Christ Church Hymnal uses one (Dorrnance or Talmar) by Isaac B. Woodbury.  The 1987 Zion’s Praises, a Mennonite hymnal, has one (Sicilian Mariners) which it attributes to Mozart.  These tunes require dividing up the material into four-line stanzas instead of having four eight-line stanzas.  The 1913 Good Old Songs and the 1983 Old School Hymnal Eleventh Edition both use one (Crumley) by William Houser.  The 2004 Primitive Baptist Hymnal has one (Greenville) by Jean Jacques Rousseau.  Other possible tunes suggested include one (Batty or Ringe recht), a Moravian melody, from the chorale “Ringe recht in Erbaulicher musikalischen Christen-schatz” first published in the Musikalischer ChristenschatzTown, Basel, Switzerland, 1745; another (Evening Prayer Stebbins) by George C. Stebbins, 1878; still another (Freiburg), a German folk song from the 16th Century; yet another (Love Divine Stainer) by John Stainer, 1889; and one more (Merton Monk) by William H. Monk, 1850.   The 1902 Church and Sunday School Hymnal with Supplement, the 1959 Christian Hymnal Mennonite, and the 1980 New Harmonia Sacra Legacy Edition all use one  (Divine Compassion), which the New Harmonia Sacra Legacy Edition attributes to W. Cowper, although William Cowper was a poet, not a musician, but which the Christian Hymnal Mennonite simply says “Source Unknown.”  So far as I know, no books published by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ have ever included this hymn.

It would seem to be a suitable song for singing before the Lord’s supper.

I. Stanza 1 focuses on Christ’s cross

Sweet the moments, rich in blessing,

Which before the cross we spend,

Life and health and peace possessing

From the sinner’s dying Friend.

Here we stay, forever viewing

Mercy streaming in His blood;

Precious drops, our souls bedewing,

Plead and claim our peace with God.

  1. We do not literally stand before the cross, but we spend time with it by contemplating what it means: Gal. 6:14
  2. It reminds us that Jesus is the sinner’s dying Friend: Jn. 15:13
  3. This is because we have redemption through His blood: Eph. 1:7

II. Stanza 2 focuses on Christ’s forgiveness

Truly blessèd is the station,

Low before His cross to lie,

While we see divine compassion

Floating in His languid (or gracious) eye.

Here we find our hope of Heaven,

While upon the Lamb we gaze;

Loving much, and much forgiven,

Let our hearts o’erflow with praise.

  1. As we contemplate the cross, we see divine compassion: Matt. 9:35-38
  2. Christ is the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world: Jn. 1:29
  3. We should love Him much because He has forgiven us so much: Lk. 7:47

III. Stanza 3 focuses on Christ’s love

Love and fear our hearts dividing,

With our tears His feet we bathe;

Constant still in faith abiding,

Love deriving from His death.

May we still enjoy this feeling,

In all need to Jesus go,

Prove His wounds each day more healing,

And Himself more deeply know.

  1. When we contemplate the cross, our hearts are divided between fear and love: 2 Tim. 1:7
  2. Fear brings tears for our sins, but love prompts us to act as if, like Mary, we were washing His feet with those tears: Jn. 12:1-8
  3. This is because we understand that He showed His love for us by His death: 1 Jn. 3:16

IV. Stanza  4 focuses on Christ’s salvation

Lord, in ceaseless contemplation

Fix our hearts and eyes on Thee,

Till we taste Thy full salvation,

And unveiled Thy glories see.

For Thy sorrows we adore Thee,

For the griefs that wrought our peace;

Gracious Savior, we implore Thee,

In our hearts Thy love increase.

  1. Contemplating the cross will help us set our minds on things above: Col. 3:1-2
  2. It will also help us to appreciate the full salvation that is in Christ: 2 Tim. 2:10
  3. And it will help us to increase our love for Him who brought this great salvation: Rom. 5:8-10

CONCL.: Shirley’s original adaptation was in the first person singular, whereas most hymnals today use the plural.  Many modern books update the Elizabethan pronouns, and some make other changes to avoid offending politically correct sensitivities.  We especially remember the Lord’s death when we observe the Lord’s supper each first day of the week.  However, it is good to take time at other occasions to think about the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross.   Whenever we do, we shall find “Sweet the Moments, Rich in Blessing.”

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