(portrait of Alexander Campbell)
“UPON THE BANKS OF JORDAN STOOD”
“And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there…” (Jn. 3:23)
INTRO.: A hymn which points to the baptism of John in water is “Upon the Banks of Jordan Stood.” The text was written by Alexander Campbell who was born, most likely on Sept. 12, 1788, near Ballymena in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland. His Presbyterian minister father, Thomas, emigrated to the United States in 1807, making his home near Washington, PA, and Alexander and the rest of the family followed a couple of years later, eventually settling in VA near what is now Bethany, WV Both he and his father also withdrew from the Presbyterian and began preaching only non-denominational, New Testament Christianity. These facts are well-known, but what is likely not as well-known is that Campbell was very interested in the singing of the church, edited songbooks for use in local congregations, and even wrote hymns himself. In May of 1828, Campbell brought out his Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs adapted to the Christian Religion, containing 125 hymns. A second edition appeared in 1829 and a third in 1832. Meanwhile, Barton Warren Stone, assisted by Thomas Adams, had published The Christian Hymn-Book, Compiled and Published at the Request of the Miami Christian Conference in 1829, with 340 hymns. After Adams’s death, he joined with John Telemachus Johnson for a new edition in 1832. However, in 1832, after Campbell and Stone had determined that they were both preaching the same thing, they achieved a union in their efforts, and in 1834 also combined their hymnbooks into Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, Original and Selected–Compiled by A. Campbell, W. Scott, B. W. Stone, and J. T. Johnson–Bethany, Va. 1834, having 240 hymns. All these books had no music but contained words only. In Campbell’s day, almost all hymnbooks contained words only with no music. Within ten years, hymnbooks with music became more and more common, but Campbell vehemently opposed the use of music in hymnbooks, claiming that printed music was a distraction during the song service, and he never wavered from this opposition.
Most hymn-poems were written in certain meters, and various tunes were composed to fit those meters. People usually memorized as many tunes as possible, and in a worship service the song leader chose one that fit a particular hymn. It was not uncommon for a hymn to be sung to several different tunes. Campbell never allowed any of his hymns to be set to music, and there is little historical data to indicate what tunes were used with his hymns. The 1843 edition of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs gave the suggested tune (Mount Nebo) for this hymn which was titled “John’s Baptism.” Unfortunately, there are at least three “Mount Nebo” tunes, but the one given in Amos Sutton Hayden’s Introduction to Sacred Music is the most likely choice. Campbell died at Bethany on Mar. 4, 1866. A new tune was composed and a chorus was added both by Max Wheeler, who was born on Sept. 18, 1932, at Nocona, TX, into the singing family of Ed and Eula Wheeler. He married Nancy Lyles and they had three children, Julie, Jeff, and Melanie. His father was a first cousin to Palmer Esker Wheeler (1904-1983). Palmer was a well-known songwriter among churches of Christ, who did much to popularize the song, “I Know the Lord Will Find a Way for Me.” He was also the one who set the books of the New Testament to music for children to learn them. This makes Max a second cousin to Palmer’s son, Tommy Wheeler (1931-2015). Tommy was also a songwriter whose hymns have appeared in several books published and used among churches of Christ. For a number of years Max, a graduate of Abilene Christian University, lived in the Dallas, TX, area and led singing at the Preston Rd. church. During this time, he produced many hymns and provided music for hymns written by others. Perhaps his best known song is “His Name Is Jesus,” published in 1991.
In 1986, Wheeler was preparing some material for a series of lectures on church music in the early days of the “restoration movement” and compiled a collection of hymns by some of the leaders, including Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. Since Campbell had never allowed any of his hymns to be set to music, one evening Wheeler tried to come up with a musical arrangement for Campbell’s poem, “Upon the Banks of Jordan Stood,” taken from the 1834 edition of Campbell’s Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs The poem was written as a narrative, beginning with the proclamation of John the Baptist that Jesus is the Lamb of God, writing about the steps of salvation, and discussing the establishment of Christ’s church which is described as the “reign of God.” After trying first one thing and then another Wheeler finally just memorized the basic tune that sounded the best. About a month later, he was doing some recording with Ray Walker at a Dallas studio and scratched out a quick manuscript copy of the music, asking Ray to look it over. By the next night, Ray had recorded it. The producer, Bill Shockley, liked it so much that he decided to include it in one of his production tapes and market it. A few months later, Bill Humble asked to use it as the theme music for a video that he was producing on the life of Alexander Campbell. It was first published in a new edition of V. E. Howard’s Church Gospel Songs and Hymns, and since then, it has been included in several other hymnbooks published among churches of Christ, including the 1992 Praise for the Lord, edited by John P. Wiegand. Also, Max did much research on hymns, and for some three years the Christian Journal presented a series of articles that he wrote on well-loved songs. These articles were collected and published as a book, known as Reflections On Our Hymns, in 1992. He died peacefully at Dallas, TX, on September 10, 2012.
The hymn connects the work of John the Baptizer to the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
I. Stanza 1 speaks of John’s mission
Upon the banks of Jordan stood
The great reformer, John,
And pointed to the Lamb of God,
The long expected one.
- John baptized in the Jordan River: Mk. 1:4-5
- He was a great reformer because He preached repentance: Matt. 3:7-8
- This was done in preparation for the long expected Lamb of God to whom John pointed: Jn. 1:29
II. Stanza 2 speaks of John’s message
He loud proclaimed the coming reign,
And told them to reform;
If they God’s favor would obtain,
And shun the gathering storm.
- First, he proclaimed the coming reign or kingdom of the Messiah: Matt. 3:1-2
- To prepare for it, he told the people to reform: Lk. 3:10-14
- This was needed to obtain God’s favor and shun the gathering storm of punishment: Matt. 3:10-12
III. Stanza 3 speaks of John’s work
He bade all those who would repent,
Forthwith to be immersed,
Assuring them that God had sent
The message he rehearsed.
- John preached a baptism of repentance for remission of sins: Lk. 3:2-3
- Those who thus repented were immersed: Lk. 7:29
- The work which John did was from God: Jn. 1:6-7
IV. Stanza 4 speaks of John’s result
Thus did the man of God prepare
A people for the Lord;
To him did all the Jews repair,
Who trusted in his word.
- He was sent to prepare the way of the Lord: Matt. 3:3
- Also, He prepared a people for the Lord: Lk. 1:13-17
- As a result, all the Jews to him did repair: Matt. 3:5-6
V. Stanza 5 speaks of the fulfillment of John’s prediction
But now the reign of God has come,
That reign of grace below,
And Jesus reigns upon God’s throne,
Remission to bestow.
- The reign or kingdom which John prophesied has come as Jesus now sits on God’s throne: Acts 2:30-33
- Therefore, we can be saved by grace: Eph. 2:8-9
- This is because remission is offered to sinful mankind: Acts 2:38
VI. Stanza 6 speaks of the one whom John proclaimed
He bids all nations look to Him,
As Prince of Life and Peace;
And offers pardon to all them
Who now accept His grace.
- Jesus bids all nations look to Him: Matt. 28:18-20
- He is the Prince of Life and Peace prophesied in the Old Testament: Isa. 9:6
- He offers pardon or forgiveness to all who accept Him: Acts 13:38
CONCL.: The chorus, like John, points us to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world:
Now I see the blood of the Lamb,
Now I see the blood of the Lamb;
‘Tis the blood of Jesus the crucified one;
Now I see the blood of the Lamb.
The omitted stanza is as follows:
- Forsake your sins, the Baptist said,
That you may be forgiven;
Forsake them now, and be immersed,
For near’s the reign of heaven.
This is probably the best known of the Campbell hymns because it touches on the theme of baptism, so central to the doctrinal debates of his time. In the first five stanzas, Campbell summarizes the evangelistic work of John the Baptist. The final two stanzas are addressed to the modern reader, living this side of Calvary, and stress the far greater significance of baptism into Christ. Wheeler’s version uses only stanzas 1, 3, 6, and 7. Particularly interesting is Campbell’s preference for the term “immerse” to represent the Greek “baptize” as used in the New Testament, rather than the English transliteration “baptize.” Certainly there are many lessons that we can learn by remembering that time when John “Upon the Banks of Jordan Stood.”