Some people disregard the power of the old gospel hymns. In today’s world they are being replaced by “christian” rock music and sensual worship songs. They claim that the old hymns of the faith are outdated, and those who still sing them are old-fashioned.
Historically though, what were the songs that had the most profound imprints on the hearts and minds of those who heard them? It certainly wasn’t the modern day worship music.
Don’t get me wrong—I love fresh, new music that is Christ-honoring! Not all old hymns are Biblically sound, and not all new songs are bad, which is why we have to walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise. We have to be discerning what is Biblical and Christ-honoring, and what is not.
As a musician, I’m a firm believer that music has power. Not just the melodies that words are set to, but also the words themselves. When godly lyrics are paired with godly music, it’s like a knockout punch.
My heart has been tremendously blessed recently to hear amazing accounts of some of our most beloved hymns and how they have influenced, and yes, even changed the course of history. From the battlefields of the War Between the States, all the way to the tragic last moments aboard the Titanic, these treasured hymns of faith have been used so greatly by God.
I think that can be seen in the accounts I’m going to share with you.
One of my favorite hymns is Nearer My God To Thee. While studying this hymn, several accounts stood out to me. The first one begins on the battlefield of Fort Donelson, 1862.
The War Between the States had begun the previous year. Already hundreds had fallen in the midst of the fierce fighting. At the battle for Fort Donelson, the cries and groans of the wounded mixed with the harsh sounds of the battle. Shells and bullets flew in every direction, reigning down on the poor souls caught in its fray.
When the battle was finally over, the wounded and dying began to be carried off the field. One young drummer boy stood out amid the horror of that day. In the course of the battle, a cannonball had blown his arm away and mangled his shoulder. He had lost far too much blood, and when the soldiers found him laying in the field they knew he was on his way into eternity. No surgeon or medicine available would be able to save him.
As they carried him away, he was singing with the last strength in his body,
A peace washed over his face that couldn’t be explained. In the face of unbearable pain raging through his body, he was singing. The haunting words of the hymn echoed over the battlefield that was now silent save for the whimpered cry of those injured in the fight. His young life slipped away into eternity, carried by the sweet comfort of this old hymn.
Later in the war, the Confederate army was forced to retreat in the battle of Gettysburg. As the army retreated, the bodies of their brave comrades lay strewn over the battlefield. In an act of mourning and recognition of their nearly 28,000 soldiers who’d been lost as casualties to the battle, the Confederate band, with tears in their eyes, played Nearer My God To Thee, as the army pulled back.
The notes of the song danced over the bloody field, borne on the wings of grief and pain. Somehow in the chaos of a battle retreat, the serenity of the words brought peace to their broken spirits and healing to their souls.
Perhaps though, the most known and recognized highlights for this graceful old hymn is connected to the last fleeting seconds aboard the RMS Titanic. Amid the panic of the ship sinking below the icy surface of the dark Atlantic waters, this hymn had one of its most moving moments.
Those who could be evacuated in the ship’s lifeboats had already been. The great ship was quickly succumbing to the water raging around it. Those left on board knew that no rescue was coming. Their fate was to be an icy grave in the depths of the Atlantic. The reports from that tragic night give us some insight into what happened. Some of those left aboard to die, were panicked as many naturally would be. Others were weeping and praying.
The band aboard the Titanic had continued to play, even as the last lifeboats were pulling away, leaving them behind to face death’s chilling tide. One of the passengers left on board was a Baptist preacher who had been traveling aboard the Titanic with his four year old daughter. He had kissed his little girl goodbye and passed her to one of the women in the lifeboats, knowing full well he’d never see her again in this life. Seeing that the ship was going down quickly, he made a request of the band, and in the final moments, as the last of the ship slipped beneath the surface, the band played their final song.
Godly music is powerful. It can soothe the soul in life’s darkest moments. One of my favorite parts of studying hymns, is hearing powerful stories like these. Throughout the course of time, these stories show us how a simple hymn impacted some of the worst moments.
You can call me old-fashioned, outdated, or whatever else you’d like to, but I adore the old Gospel hymns. My love for them has only grown as I study deeper into the history each hymn holds. I hope that maybe you can say the same as we’ve studied them here.
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