We will begin this Sunday’s worship service by singing #5 on the top ten list, “Great is thy faithfulness,” according to a recent survey. Well, maybe it’s not on your top ten list, and it probably isn’t among the top ten favorite hymns of most Episcopalians. And it wasn’t a hymn sung by Lutherans from the tradition in which I grew up. But even though it might not rank as number five, “Great is thy faithfulness” is definitely among the most popular Christian hymns of all time and is sung throughout the world.
If you often read my “Music Notes,” you know that many hymns grow out of dramatic or heart-wrenching experiences in the lives of the authors. This is not true of “Great is thy faithfulness.” Instead, the hymn writer Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960), who had more than his share of ups and downs in his life, was inspired by two Bible passages which were important to him. The King James Version of James 1:17 speaks of “the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” The second biblical reference is from Lamentations 3:22b-23, “His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.”
Thomas Chisholm was a school teacher, newspaper and magazine editor, life insurance agent, and Methodist pastor, but poor health limited his ministry to only one year. He wrote over 1,200 sacred poems, many of which were published in religious periodicals. Trivia question: What is one thing that Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Chisholm have in common? Each was born in a log cabin in Kentucky.
The tune for “Great is thy faithfulness” comes from William Marion Runyan (1870-1957), who composed over 300 gospel songs and was a lifelong friend of Thomas Chisholm. In 1923 Chisholm, who was living in Vineland, New Jersey, sent this and several other texts to Runyan, a Methodist minister who lived in Baldwin, Kansas. It was published that same year in Songs of Salvation and Service, a collection edited by Runyan. The tune name FAITHFULNESS was suggested by Runyan for the 1960 Baptist Hymnal.
After retiring from the ministry, William Runyan became associated with the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He once commented on the words of “Great is thy faithfulness,” writing: “This particular poem held such an appeal that I prayed most earnestly that my tune might carry over its message in a worthy way, and the subsequent history of its use
indicates that God answered prayer.”
“Great is thy faithfulness” became the unofficial school song at the Moody Bible Institute and was a popular choice in Billy Graham Crusades. It’s a hymn that has become meaningful for many people as a source of comfort during times of crisis or grief. Certainly for us in this time of crisis and insecurity, this hymn reminds us of God’s gracious intentions for us. And so we can face the uncertainty of the future, assured of God’s unchanging faithfulness.
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with thee.
Thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not;
As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be.
Refrain: Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed thy hand hath provided;
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love. Refrain.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside! Refrain