“THE MOUNTAINS OF FAITH”
“…The end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:9)
INTRO.: A song which points out that the end of their faith for which Christians seek is the salvation of their souls is “The Mountains of Faith” (#329 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Henry Jeffreys Zelley (1859-1942). Born at Mount Holly, NJ, Zelley attended Pennington Seminary and Taylor University, where he earned his Ph.D. and divinity degrees. Becoming a Methodist minister, he worked in the New Jersey Conference, retiring in 1929. He produced over 1,500 poems, hymns, and gospel songs, including “When Israel Out of Bondage Came” in 1896, “He Brought Me Out” in 1898, and, perhaps his best known, “Heavenly Sunlight” in 1899, prior to his death at Trenton, NJ. Hymnary.org lists a total of 95 hymns under his name. I have not been able to find a copyright date for “The Mountains of Faith,” and the earliest book to which I have been able to trace the song is Our Thankful Songs edited by Anthony J. Showalter and published by the A. J. Showalter Co. of Dalton, GA, in 1900. The tune was composed by M. L. McPhail.
It is believed that he is the M. L. McPhail who was associated with Charles T. Russell, founder of what is now the Jehovah’s Witnesses, at the beginning of the 1890s since in 1892 a letter from him is published in the Zion’s Watch Tower. McPhail, who was very active as a lecturer, was married, and had at least one son who got ill and died in 1897, was the author of the Feb. 1, 1896, issue of the Zion’s Watch Tower entirely devoted to religious hymns (“Zion’s Glad Songs of the Morning,” with 11 hymns). Most of the songs were composed by him, but one of them is composed by a certain John McPhail. In another reference in the Zion’s Watch Tower, M.L. McPhail mentions “brother John” in a very familiar way, so he might be his “brother” in a literal sense. In 1900, McPhail was the author of a songbook entitled Zion’s Glad Songs for all Christian Gatherings (82 hymns), published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society and advertised in the Zion’s Watch Tower as a hymnbook that complements the official one, Hymns of Millennial Dawn. In 1907 he published another hymnbook with the same title Zion’s Glad Songs No. 2 for all Christian Gatherings (65 hymns). This one is not published by the Society, but by a certain K. McPhail from Chicago. However, on the back cover the publications of Russell and the International Bible Students Association are advertised. Then in 1908 he published another songbook with the title Zion’s Glad Songs for all Christian Gatherings (248 hymns). It was published in Chicago by M. L. McPhail himself. This time, there was no reference to Russell or the International Bible Students Association.
The Library of Congress assigns him the name Malcolm (or Malcom) Leod McPhail, born about 1877. It is not likely that this Malcolm or Malcom Leod McPhail, is the same M. L. McPhail who was a hymn writer associated with Charles T. Russell, especially because of his year of birth, 1877. There are several hymnbooks and pieces of light music by M. L. McPhail for instance in the Library of Congress. Some of them are published in 1878, 1882, etc. So, “our” M. L. McPhail couldn’t have been born in 1877. Either they are different McPhails, or the year assigned by the Library of Congress is wrong. He also published the series of hymnbooks called Winnowed Anthems between 1894 and the 1920s. If M. L. McPhail had been born in 1877, then in 1894 he was seventeen, and yet he was a recognized musician who was even able to publish a series of hymnbooks. However, there is also a light music score in the Library of Congress, the author of which is “Mat. L. McPhail.” It was common to abbreviate the name Matthew as “Mat.” Also Vol. 6 of the series Winnowed Anthems includes a hymn by certain M. Lindsay McPhail Jr. Was this McPhail’s son? If so, we can infer that the father’s name was also M. Lindsay McPhail, and so we could arrive at the possibility that his name was Matthew Lindsay McPhail.
According to U. S. Census records, there was a Matthew L.[indsay] McPhail, born at Baillieston, Scotland, in 1854 or 1855, arrived to the U.S.A. in 1865, and granted U.S. citizenship in 1880. In the 1910 census his profession was evangelist and he lived in Chicago, IL, and in the 1920 and 1930 census he lived in Maine, IL. One of his brothers was called John, born in 1849 (he could be the John McPhail mentioned before). He had at least 2 daughters, Jessie and Laura; in the Watchtower’s Souvenir Report for 1905 or 1906 Laura McPhail is mentioned along with M. L. McPhail. One of his sons was M. Lindsay McPhail (which could be the one mentioned in Vol. 6 of Winnowed Anthems). The census specifies that this son was a musician, a pianist. Matthew L. McPhail’s wife, whom he married in 1878, was Catharine or Kate McPhail (Kelly was her maiden name, born in 1858), who could be the publisher, K. McPhail, of Zion’s Glad Songs No. 2 for all Christian Gatherings. This M. L. McPhail is said to have composed more than 200 religious hymns, before, during and after being an active “Bible Student” (early name for Jehovah’s Witnesses). He apparently was in touch with some of the most famous hymn writers and hymn composers of the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of twentieth century. Around 1909, his relationship with the Watch Tower Society ended when, due to certain doctrinal differences with Russell, he and E. C. Henninges decided to leave the movement. McPhail died in 1931, and his son became a famous composer and pianist between the 20s and 40s. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century, “The Mountains of Faith” is currently found in Sacred Selections.
The song talks about looking forward to the eternal home as we travel on through life.
I. Stanza 1 says that we are seeking the country where Jesus has gone
“I’m seeking the country where Jesus has gone,
I’m facing the beauty of heaven’s bright dawn;
I’m climbing the mountains, the mountains of faith,
And now I can see o’er the river of death.”
- Even the patriarchs of old sought not the land from which they came but the heavenly country: Heb. 11:13-16
- Like them, we seek the beauty of heaven’s bright dawn by laying up treasures there: Matt. 6:19-20
- As we continue climbing the mountains of faith and draw ever nearer the river of death, we can see with clearer vision the heavenly promise, like Moses on Mt. Nebo: Deut. 34:1-3
II. Stanza 2 says that we are going onward and upward
“I’ve climbed to the summit of holy desire,
But onward and upward my soul doth aspire;
I see in the sunlight some higher peaks glow,
And strong in my Savior, still upward I go.”
- We climb to the summit of holy desire by running with patience the race set before us: Heb. 12:1
- However, we must not consider ourselves to have apprehended but continue to press onward and upward: Phil. 3:13-14
- We can do this only if we are strong in the Lord and in the power of His might: Eph. 6:10
III. Stanza 3 says that we must leave the darkness of this earth behind
“I’ve left all the fogs of the valley behind,
And here the bright sunlight forever I find;
The clouds are beneath me, above is my home,
And Christ, my dear Savior, invites me to come.”
- The fogs of the valley, which we must leave behind, represent the darkness or sin of this world: Jn. 3:19-21
- Instead of the darkness of sin, we should walk and live in the bright sunlight of God: 1 Jn. 1:5-7
- This is necessary in order to seek the city which is above: Heb. 13:14
IV. Stanza 4 says that we can see the fair city where Jesus awaits
“I see the fair city where Jesus awaits,
I see the bright walls with their wide opened gates;
I’m climbing the mountains, but soon I’ll arise,
And leave the last peak for my home in the skies.”
- By the eyes of faith we can see in God’s written word the city where Jesus awaits: Rev. 21:1-1-2
- We can see its bright walls with their wide open gates: Rev. 21:12-14
- But to enter that city we must continue climbing the mountains of faith by doing God’s commandments: Rev. 22:14
CONCL.: The chorus continues to emphasize the importance of climbing the mountains on our journey toward the heavenly city.
“I’m climbing, climbing,
I’m climbing of the mountains of faith;
Still higher I climb, to regions sublime,
On the peaks of the mountains of faith.”
I recall first seeing this song when the congregation where my family worshipped as I was growing up changed from Christian Hymns No. 2 to Sacred Selections in the early 1970s. However, I never heard it sung until I was in college when a college friend of mine led it in a singing practice at the congregation where we both attended. It certainly has a bright, positive message as it exhorts to keep on climbing “The Mountains of Faith.”