A while back I wrote a post on the hymn Be Thou My Vision and I mentioned in it how the song had been popping up over and over again at (seemingly) random times recently. The difference between Be Thou My Vision and Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing is that the latter has been popping up at regular intervals for decades now. I’ll be walking down the sidewalk or doing something mindless at work and suddenly realize that I’m whistling the tune. Or I’ll be reading something that has a word from the lyrics of the hymn and suddenly find myself meditating on its brilliant ideas. It truly was only a matter of time before I wrote about Come Thou Fount; it is a collection of powerful thoughts with a simple yet beautifully syncopated tune.
Admittedly, I knew nothing about the origins of the words or music until researching for this post. And though it doesn’t have an ancient and captivating story like Be Thou My Vision it still boasts a background which is worth knowing. It may seem too simple or too mundane upon first experience, but considering this normality it should be even more poignant to those of us who tire of our own repetitious lives.
The lyrics were written in 1757 by a man named Robert Robinson. Robinson grew up in Norfolk, England. Though always rather poor, his father had died when he was young and this had intensified his deprived state. He was a lover of the written word, spending quite a bit of his time devouring any books he could get his hands on. Yet he initially rebelled against his mother’s wishes to make him a clergyman in the C of E and became instead an aimless teenager and young man. A story is even told about him and his friends getting an old woman drunk and then making fun of her.
However, he wasn’t aimless for long. At 17 he attended a George Whitefield sermon which revealed a void in his life. He wrestled with how to fill the void for three years before giving his life to Jesus on Tuesday, 10 December 1755 at the age of 20. The peace which he obtained on that day changed everything about him and the once-aimless boy became a 22 year-old man who had the peace and understanding to pen the thoughts of grace and mercy so forcefully delivered in Come Thou Fount.
In England Come Thou Fount is sung to a tune called Normandy – with which I’m not familiar – while in the United States it is sung to a tune called Nettleton. Though Nettleton is sometimes attributed to the famous evangelist Asahel Nettleton, it was more likely written by a young music publisher named John Wyeth. Wyeth was born in Massachusetts in 1770 but moved down to Hispaniola Island early in his adult life in order to take over a printing company in Santo Domingo. It is very difficult to find any further information on what happened while he was there, but each account includes a statement along the lines of, “he barely escaped the insurrection there with his life” (songsandhymns). He must have printed Nettleton after this escape in 1792. It was no doubt one of the defining moments in his life, though it would not be exceedingly important to my purpose here except that the circumstances surrounding the insurrection of Hispaniola seem to fit perfectly with the theme of the song Come Thou Fount.
In 1791 an insurrection against the French Colonial Government was begun by the Haitian slaves. Wyeth may have left the island in the following year, but the bloodshed did not end until expulsion of the French in 1804. One often reads about frightening circumstances surrounding the final eviction of the French by the Haitian slaves (e.g. appeals to Satan, violent slaughter of enemies, and wholesale destruction), but the underlying motive of many of those who rebelled was for freedom. No matter the level of education of a people nor their relative experience with freedom, it is inherent in man to seek personal autonomy and self-determination. Furthermore, a man who rules himself soon realizes that the unforeseen corollary to self-determination is that he is incomplete without a Guide guiding him.
Come Thou Fount seems to take this realization for granted and appeals to God as not only a Guide, but as a giver of life – and all that makes it worthwhile – itself.
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
I love the thought of a “fount” of blessings. It gives the vision of a never-ending source of goodness that fits brilliantly with what we know of God. He truly is a “never-ceasing” fount of all that is good and right in this world. And to give adequate praise for His goodness how can we not ask Him to teach us the words and tune which are sung by those of the unfallen who were created to minister to Him?
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.*
(*Note that this verse had some very different words in Robinson’s original, however the thoughts were the same)
The term “Ebenezer” isn’t referring to Scrooge. It’s an allusion to Samuel’s erected “stone of help” in 1 Sam 7:12. He placed the stone of help as a monument to God’s enduring care for the Israelite people and Robinson references it in his song as a way for the singer to acknowledge that he/she has only made it “hither” through the strength and guidance of God.
But even with this acknowledgement of the help of God, Robinson admits a weakness: “Prone to wander … prone to leave.” Almost like Paul’s Romans 7 man (“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.”), Robinson speaks the frustrations of a heart and soul dedicated to God being still subject to the weaknesses of the flesh. So, “seal” my heart, Lord … “seal it for Thy courts above” before my weaknesses enslave me.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood.
How His kindness yet pursues me,
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall lose me,
I cannot proclaim it well.
Robinson points out that it was Christ who “sought” him, even when he was “a stranger” to God. This is true for all of us, and it is especially important to realize that He sought us in order to “rescue” us from the danger we brought upon ourselves in our “wandering” – and He did so by interposing HIS precious blood.
O to grace how great a debtor,
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for They courts above.
This is the verse that bursts on my mind more often than the others. Being a “debtor” to grace is an incredible thought. I’m “constrained” – embarrassed or self-conscious – daily about the debt I owe! So “fetter” me, shackle me, chain me, Lord, to your goodness that I may wander no more!
O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen,
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send Thine angels now to carry,
Me to realms of endless day.
The fifth verse is not sung very often, but what a wonderful end to the thoughts of the song. Robinson understands and communicates that the result of a life lived seeking the God who clothed them with “blood washed linen” is to live in a “realm of endless day.”
The song resounds with equal earnestness through the themes of God’s help, grace and goodness, while mirroring them explicitly with man’s own proneness to wander and sin. How then can these words not capture the attention and ring from the heart of a son or daughter of God? It is, and always will be, a song which reverberates in my conscience, drawing me back to the right frame of mind to understand my own helpless and weak position apart from God. Indeed, I must sing, “O to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be!”
SongsandHymns.org. John Wyeth. 2014, songsandhymns.org. 19 Sep 2014. http://www.songsandhymns.org/people/detail/john-wyeth