Text: Ina Duly Ogden (1872-1964) Tune: Charles Hutchinson Gabriel (1856-1932)
1. Do not wait until some deed of greatness you may do, Do not wait to shed your light afar; To the many duties ever near you now be true, Brighten the corner where you are. R/Brighten the corner where you are! Brighten the corner where you are! Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar; Brighten the corner where you are!
2. Just above are clouded skies that you may help to clear, Let not narrow self your way debar; Though into one heart alone may fall your song of cheer, Brighten the corner where you are. R/
3. Here for all your talent you may surely find a need, Here reflect the bright and Morning Star; Even from your humble hand the Bread of Life may feed, Brighten the corner where you are. R/
An old woman in one of our congregations would sit and listen to as much religious radio as she could find on the dial back in the forties and fifties when radio was still in its prime. Her house was stacked with Bibles, religious books and magazines, with crocheted crosses as doilies on the sofa, tables and chairs where she sat in her house dress reading and praying. There was an odor of must mixed with mothballs, a bouquet the next generation has not known. Her life had been sad. Her husband had abandoned her for a much younger woman. Her only joy was Bible study and prayer. When we would go visit her, there was always that certain aura and a radio crackling in the background—with preachers and songs like this one. Especially this one.
Her prayer was that she could “Brighten the corner” wherever she was. I am not quite sure she could—her personal griefs had a way of welling up into her speech, tears running down her wrinkled face from her rheumy eyes. Her ministry of prayer, however, brightened the lives of many.
The writer of this hymn had suffered as well. To escape the financial situation they were in, her father took the family to homestead in South Dakota. It was a disaster--poor crops, and weather-- which ruined his health. Ina attended Greer College and began teaching school. She started writing hymns in the early 1890s. She immediately teamed up with Charles H. Gabriel, one of the best song writers of that generation. It was the beginning of a fruitful career of writing hymns, many thousands. She married in 1896, and had a son. Just as her career was blossoming, her father had a severe stroke and she had to give up her plans for a more public career and care for him. During that time, however, she wrote this hymn to encourage others—and herself.
I can hear the encouragement, but also some grief and maybe a bit of anger. She had had large ambitions; now they were confined to one heart alone, a place where all her talent may have seemed to be going to waste. Could she find fulfillment by shining the light of Jesus, the Morning Star, into the place where she had been called?
Her ambitions, given the time, were suppressed. As a Christian she knew that we are called to serve wherever we find ourselves. And sometimes that may seem small and demeaning next to our grand ambitions. But the end of this story is a surprise. Serving Christ in the smallest place brings him to that place. God has a way of using our disappointments to give us something beyond what we might have expected. Maybe our dreams are too small, even big ones like Ina must have had.
I knew a professor at a secular university where I studied briefly, whose second wife was a devout Christian. He would have none of it, but loved her enough to go to church with her. As he sat listening to the sermons, he became disgusted with the preacher. He thought his God was too small, and his view of the world he preached pedestrian. He remarked to me once, in disbelief, here this guy has such a big world to give his people and he gives them such a small one.
If we look at Ogden’s hymn, and think of her life, she tried to brighten that corner and bring the light of the Gospel, a big world, to her little corner. Serving her bedridden father during a time she had expected to be doing more, a big world dawned on her. God blessed her work. This hymn brought light and healing to millions of people—as she was faithful in the small, God blessed her faithfulness. It brought forth fruits a hundredfold, yeah, even a millionfold. Who knows all the good that was done in the name of Jesus because this hymn encouraged one person, here or there, to bring light to a another’s darkness that changed it forever.
The hymn text was completed in 1912 and set not long after by Gabriel. It became the signature song for the Billy Sunday/Homer Rodeheaver revivals. Thousands would hear it during their campaigns. Homer Rodeheaver’s company sold 35,000,000 copies of it the last they counted. Rodeheaver, a showman without peer, played it on his trombone while flying above the White House to imitate the Second Coming of Christ. American troops coming to France to fight in the First World War were said to have sung it. It became Rodeheaver's song over time. He was quite the character. He never married, but did propose to Amee Semple McPherson, the sensational woman evangelist of the 1920s--a worse idea is hard to fathom. Two superstars....almost as bad as Hans Christian Andersen proposing to Jenny Lind--which he did.
The hymn did not make it into mainline hymnals and it has almost completely disappeared in the past half century. Ella Fitzgerald recorded it on an album of Gospel songs called Brighten the Corner and the internet is filled with versions. An amazing story, oddly in tune with its text. Lots of versions, all fun!
Ella Fitzgerald Brighten the Corner
Ella Fitzgerald Christmas Album
Homer Rodeheaver on an old Victor Record
Angel Grace’s Cathedral Choir/Ernest Angley Ministries
Sweet Symphony/social distancing