HYMN 182 What Wondrous Love is This
Text: Anonymous Tune: Anonymous, arr. William Walker, (1809-1875) Southern Harmony
1. What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul, What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!
2. When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down, When I was sinking down, sinking down; When I was sinking down beneath God's righteous frown, Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul, Christ laid aside his crown for my soul!
3. Ye winged seraphs fly, Bear the news, bear the news! Ye winged seraphs fly, Bear the news!— Ye winged seraphs fly like comets through the sky Fill vast eternity! With the news with the news! Fill vast eternity with the news!
4. Ye friends of Zion’s king, join his praise, join his praise; Ye friends of Zion’s king, join his praise; Ye friends of Zion’s king, with hearts and voices sing, And strike each tuneful string in his praise, in his praise! And strike each tuneful string in his praise! 5. To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing, To God and to the Lamb, I will sing; To God and to the Lamb, who is the great I AM, While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing, While millions join the theme, I will sing!
6. And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on, I'll sing on, And when from death I'm free, I'll sing on; And when from death I'm free, I'll sing and joyful be, And through eternity I'll sing on, I'll sing on, And through eternity I'll sing on!
I can’t remember when I first heard this hymn. It seems like it has always been there. And in a way it has—its folk origin connects it to folk music all around the world. The tune and text are a wonderful marriage.
We do know when and where it emerged in the American context. It was during the Second Great Awakening which started around the turn of the 18th century into the 19th. The First Great Awakening had occurred during the time of Jonathan Edwards a half century earlier. The Second Great Awakening began in the late 1700s with several iterations of it as it moved west.
The Revival of 1800 in Logan County, Kentucky, is one of the most famous events in the history. It started as a traditional Presbyterian long weekend known as sacramental time, or communion season, or holy fair, as it had been known in Scotland. It began with a communal fast on Thursday. On Friday, preachers would ask the men to interpret a portion of Scripture and the ones who were best at it might become leaders. Saturday would be a day of preparation for communion on Sunday. Monday would be a day of thanksgiving. James McGready was the pastor of three congregations around Logan Country. People were gathered at the Red River Meeting house preparing for a service when suddenly the Spirit swept over the group and changed everything. The next year at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, under the leadership of several pastors, over 20,000 people came to what has been called the first camp meeting in America. The meetings swept the country and really changed the frontier--and American religion. From these conversions and spiritual renewals came many groups and reform movements such as the Shakers, Seventh Day Adventists, the Female Missionary Societies, The American Bible Society and Abolition movements..
This song was first sung in meetings like this after 1811. Think of someone who had strayed from the faith, who was living now entirely on their own in a fierce struggle for survival, who had come to these meetings simply for human companionship. On hearing the preacher, usually a fire and brimstone preacher, calling them back to the Lord, so they were slain in the Spirit, they must have been thrilled to sing this song. This was wondrous love indeed! The Southern Harmony style can simply overcome and fill one with wonder just physically from the tide of sound sweeping over one. And then thinking of what Jesus had done for them? Can you think of a more beautiful song to sing in wonder and praise? Right out there in the piney woods? I can’t.
We can say where the text first appeared, in 1811 in a camp meeting songbook, A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs Now in Use. The text may well have been created when people sitting around the campfire at an earlier meeting kept adding one line after another. The repetitions made it easy to do. That does not tell us much about who wrote it. The tune had been used for a folk tune called the Ballad of Captain Kidd.
William Walker was the first to publish tune and text together in his Southern Harmony (1835) which sold over 600,000 copies, at the time a phenomenal number. Walker is considered essential to American music. He collected folk tunes and set them together with texts that we still cherish today, like this one, or Amazing Grace. Walker may have made the text fit the tune better, but we just don’t know. In the first link below you can hear the way it first sounded being sung by Southern Harmony aficionados. The last link is a short intro to Walker and his importance to American music.
The Sacred Harp Convention 2012/Southern Harmony
St. Olaf Choir/Anton Armstrong https://youtu.be/DsVnvN3EVxY
Blue Highway in Bristol/kind of Blue Grass
Short video on the contributions of William Walker and the shape note tradition