History of Hymns: 'God Be with You Till We Meet Again'
By Joshua Taylor
“God Be with You Till We Meet Again”
by Jeremiah Eames Rankin,
The United Methodist Hymnal, 672, 673
God be with you till we meet again;
loving counsels guide, uphold you,
with a shepherd’s care enfold you:
God be with you till we meet again.
Written as an expansion on the root sense of “good-bye” (God be [with] ye/you), “God Be with You till We Meet Again” has appeared in more than 900 hymnals and remains a prominent example of nineteenth-century gospel song in The United Methodist Hymnal and other collections today (www.Hymnary.org, n.p.). Jeremiah Eames Rankin’s (1828-1904) text is often amended to include a refrain, mimicking the style and content of other hymns used to close camp meetings, revivals, or sung on the occasion of the departure of a church leader to a new assignment (Young, 362). This practice of singing a goodbye may also be linked to the history of shaped-note singing schools concluding with a goodbye or farewell song (Young, 362).
Rankin, a congregational minister and later the president of Howard University (Washington D.C.), was a prolific hymn writer and preacher. He also helped to compile several hymnals (Daw and Watson, n.p.). First appearing in the collection Gospel Bells (1880), Rankin’s best-known hymn, “God Be with You till We Meet Again,” begins and ends each stanza of poetry with the same line, providing only the two interior lines for variety in the text.
As Carl P. Daw, Jr. writes in his commentary on Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal:
[The task of varying the text] is somewhat limited by the invariable ending of those lines with “you,” so that the rhyming word before each such occurrence must be a transitive verb or a preposition. This sort of two-syllable rhyme is generally doggerel except in the most expert hands. Yet it may be the pedestrian qualities of this text that have so endeared this hymn to many. It is the poetry of the common person, eager to find yet another rhyme to fit before the next “you” (Daw, 538).
Hymn historians Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath echo Daw’s sentiment about the poetry of the common person. Discussing the music of the camp-meeting, Eskew and McElrath write, “Singing was an important means of expressing the emotional fervor of these revival meetings. The need for simple and contagious songs, enough to appeal to unlettered folk, brought into being a simplified folk hymn… with repetition of text [and in many cases] the addition of a chorus to the hymn” (Eskew and McElrath, 185). These types of hymns became a major force in the musical landscape during the period of urban revivalism in the 1870s led largely by the meetings of evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and his musical associate, Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908) (Eskew, n.p.).
The addition of the refrain in some hymnals including The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) is of special note. Carlton Young, writing in the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, writes:
The [original] tune, as most gospel hymnody, has not received high marks from trained church musicians. Several hymnal committees, including [The Methodist Hymnal] 1966 committee hoping to discourage its singing, dropped the refrain. The sound of the congregation singing the refrain a cappella from memory and with great feeling has bewildered organists who, following the score, have just begun the next stanza (Young, 362).
What accounts for this sending hymn’s continued popularity over 125 years later? And, perhaps more importantly, what purpose does it serve in the lyrical, sung theology of the body of Christ?
Hymn writer and liturgical theologian Ruth Duck reminds worship planners that the sending is a major component of the ordo or Christian worship. She writes, “[the sending] is a key moment in worship, however brief it may be. The time of gathering brings us together as a community mindful of God’s presence, and the time of sending is our transition to the world where we will respond to God’s call and continue to experience God’s blessing” (Duck, 124). “God be with You till We Meet Again” situates itself as a message of assurance in that sending. Additionally, it serves as a marker of time and a prayer for one another.
John Patton writes on the importance of marking time together in his book, Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide. Patton writes:
The great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth is helpful in reminding us of the God-givenness of human limits. He speaks of humankind’s limited time of life as “a unique opportunity” which must be grasped and used productively…the time God gives is limited and finally comes to an end. At a certain point life began. Now we are somewhere in the middle or before or after the middle. One day it will be over. This is how we are in time. This is our allotted time and no other… Recognition of this common humanity and the limits that all human beings share is part of the spiritual preparation for offering presence in relationship (Patton, 50).
The sentimental connections of the inner lines of poetry continue to make “God Be with You till We Meet Again” a significant hymn in the corpus of sung benedictions — with or without the refrain.
Further Reading and Sources:
Carl P. Daw, Jr. Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
Ruth C. Duck. Worship for the Whole People of God: Vital Worship for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
Harry Eskew. “Gospel Songs and Hymns, USA.” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Accessed April 24, 2019. www.hymnology.co.uk/t/gospel-songs-and-hymns-usa.
Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath. Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnology (Nashville: Church Street Press, 1977).
Dan Graves, “Jeremiah Rankin: How Can Christians Say Goodbye?” Christianity.com (May 2007), https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1801-1900/jeremiah-rankin-how-can-christians-say-goodbye-11630404.html.
John Patton. Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005).
Carlton R. Young. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Carlton R. Young and J. Richard Watson. “Jeremiah Eames Rankin.” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Accessed April 24, 2019. www.hymnology.co.uk/t/jeremiah-eames-rankin.
Joshua Taylor is the Director of Worship and Music at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas, and a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program at Perkins School of Theology SMU, where he studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.