This week I present a hymn that is actually a Lenten hymn! Although, the history of it didn’t exactly match up with my expectations of a hymn that is quite commonly heard at this time of year. The words were first published around 1811 as a camp song and are sometimes attributed to Methodist minister Alexander Means, but it is unclear if he actually wrote them. The music, however, has a more interesting story. There are many examples in early church music (when it was unusual for people to be able to read – words or music), where it was common to set religious words to a popular tune for ease of learning and appeal. This is one of those hymns. It is the same tune as the English song The Ballad of Captain Kidd (c.1701), which describes the exploits of pirate William Kidd. It may even predate that, and apparently there were at least a dozen popular songs to this tune at the time. So, a pretty gloomy camp song, with pirate music ends up being a Lenten standard. I guess we never know where things may end up!
I was quite pleased that someone suggested this hymn. I’ve always loved the haunting tune and the way the words repeat in order to get the point across. Sort of adding weight with each repetition, becoming heavier and heavier until we all start to sing, bearing this weight together, by the millions.
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.
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.
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.
Maybe this one is a turning point in my Lenten theme of aloneness. Maybe as we face our spiritual journeys alone, we have the choice to do so in the company of many. Different voices. Probably different words, ideas, perspectives. But all singing for strength and comfort. Singing in praise. Singing in community. I take comfort in that. It is what moves me when I sing many of these hymns despite concerns I may have over some of the words; some of the church’s history; some of my own pain as a result of conflict and struggle within the church. There is something to be said for joining our voices. To sing with millions – regardless of who or where they are – is a magnificent example of the ideal of wondrous love. So we sing, campers and pirates alike. And when we do, we are all carried by the strength of a million voices.