Acts 8: 26-40
Text: Phillip Doddridge (1702-1751) Tune: Edwin Hawkins (1943-2018)
1. Oh happy day (oh happy day) Oh happy day (oh happy day) When Jesus washed (when Jesus washed) When Jesus washed (when Jesus washed) When Jesus washed (when Jesus washed) He washed my sins away (oh happy day)
2. Oh happy day (oh happy day)
He taught me how to watch, fight and pray, fight and pray And live rejoicing every, everyday
Oh happy day
He taught me how
Oh happy day (oh happy day) Oh happy day (oh happy day) Oh happy day (oh happy day)
This is the Oh Happy Day most of you know—and maybe you clicked on yesterday's hymn thinking to find the story of this one. The story of this hymn is once again a surprise. It shows how the tradition is always capable of being renewed and redrafted.
Its original author was Philip Doddridge, an English dissenter. The last of twenty children born to a London merchant in oils and pickles, Doddridge’s grandfather, a clergyman, had been removed from his living after he could not submit to the Act of Uniformity in 1662. His mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of John Bauman, a Lutheran pastor, who had been serving in Prague, but had to flee from persecution there to England. Philip’s mother taught him Bible history using the tiles on the fireplace mantel upon which Bible stories had been painted. She died when the boy was only eight. Four years later his father died. Philip was well taken care of, despite the fact that his appointed guardian squandered his entire inheritance. He was taken under the protection of a Presbyterian minister, Samuel Clark, a teacher at St. Albans, where the boy received a fine education.
On reaching adulthood, Doddridge refused ordination into the Anglican church and became a leader among dissenters, helping to establish Daventry Academy, a major institution of learning for Dissenters. At the time the children of Dissenters were not allowed to attend government schools like Oxford or Cambridge. A friend of Isaac Watts, also a Dissenter, Doddridge began writing. His book The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745) was the spark that changed the life of William Wilberforce, the great opponent of the slave traffic. Watts and Wesley both testified to its importance in their lives. Because poor children of dissenters could not find the means to attend these schools, Doddridge devised a way that they could be educated at these dissenting academies.
Married and the father of nine children, Doddridge suffered poor health. Finally, he traveled to Portugal to regain his health but died of tuberculosis. Doddridge wrote many hymns, among them this one which has as its source the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. The composer Edward Rimbault added the chorus in the 19th century and the hymn became a confirmation/baptism hymn.
Edwin Hawkins grew up in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and knew the hymn. He was leading a youth choir in a COGIC congregation when he wrote and recorded this song. He took the main phrases of the chorus and refashioned them so they are repetitious and not so textually complicated. When The Eddie Hawkins Singers were recording it, Dorothy Morrison, a member of the group, added some riffs to the tune which she said were influenced by James Brown. The B side of the album was Hawkins singing his version of Wesley’s "Jesus, Lover of my Soul."
This version of the hymn rejoices in the washing away of sins which connects with the baptism of the Ethiopian. It does not picture the singers in heaven like yesterday's hymn. Same difference. Forgiveness gets you there. The black church made it more ecstatic, of course. Now Hawkins' version is a major song in the Christian repertoire around the world. Rightly so! To be washed of one’s sins is to be made ready for life. Why not sing and dance?
The Eddie Hawkins Singers recording of this, in 1968, became an almost instant hit. In 1970 Hawkins won an Emmy for the recording in the Soul Gospel category and it has since been named to RIAA Songs of the Century list. It has been part of several movie sound tracks, probably none more famous than Sister Act 2 with Whoopie Goldberg and Ryan Toby. It was in Robin Williams’ License to Wed, Secretariat, and Spike Lee’s Blackklansman. Joan Baez performed it at Woodstock! Quincy Jones recorded it as have many others, like Glen Campbell, etc. A long way from the dissenting academies in England, but in the same spirit.
The Eddie Hawkins Singers 1968 recording
André Rieu and the Harlem Gospel Choir and Soweto Gospel Choir
Sister Act 2 Whoopi Goldberg and Ryan Toby
Ray Charles and the Voices of Jubilation
World Choir Games, Riga, Latvia 50,000 singers