History of Hymns: 'Higher Ground'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Higher Ground” (“I’m Pressing On the Upward Way”)
by Johnson Oatman Jr.
Songs of Zion, 39
I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I onward bound,
“Lord plant my feet on higher ground.”
Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith, on heaven’s table land;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.
Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856–1922) was one of the most prolific gospel songwriters of his day—with some 7000 texts to his credit. Hymnary.org includes more than 1,150 texts found in various collections. “There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus” (“No, Not One”) was the most published song, and “When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed” (“Count Your Blessings”), the third most published song. “Higher Ground” is the second most published song.
Oatman Jr. was a New Jersey native whose father, Johnson Oatman Sr., had a fine voice and enjoyed sitting young Johnson by his side as he sang songs in church. His education took place at Herbert’s Academy (Vincentown, New Jersey) and the New Jersey Collegiate Institute (Bordentown). For many years, the Oatmans worked together in the mercantile business in Lumberton, New Jersey, under the name Johnson Oatman & Son. Upon his father’s death, Oatman Jr. entered the life insurance business, working for a company in Mt. Holly, New Jersey.
Oatman married Wilhelmina Reid of Lumberton in 1878. His interest in hymn writing coincided with his early retirement due to ill health in 1892. Oatman and Wilhelmina had a son and two daughters. Wilhelmina died in 1909. Oatman’s younger daughter was married at the bedside of her invalid mother. Oatman Jr. died at the home of his elder daughter in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1922. He was buried in Lumberton, New Jersey.
Johnson Oatman Jr. joined the Methodist Episcopal Church at age nineteen and received a license to preach a few years later, serving as a local preacher. As hymnology biographer J.H. Hall observed, “Withal, Brother Oatman is a firm believer in the good old doctrine of the Wesleyan theolog.” (Hall, 1914, p. 359). Of Oatman’s ecclesial calling, Hall went on to say:
While Mr. Oatman does not fill any particular pulpit, yet he daily preaches to a larger congregation than the pastor of any church in the land. For through the medium of sacred song he preaches the Gospel to “all the world, and to every creature.” “Let the people praise the Lord” (Hall, 1914, p. 355).
Oatman collaborated with some of the leading tune writers of his era including John R. Sweney (1837–1899), Edwin O. Excell (1851–1921), and William J. Kirkpatrick (1838–1921). “Higher Ground,” one of Oatman’s early songs, was written in 1892 and set to music the same year by Charles H. Gabriel (1856–1932), noted for his teaching, publishing endeavors, and compositions, with hundreds of tunes and texts that were promoted in the famous urban crusades by Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver in the early twentieth century.
Charles H. Gabriel, referring to “Higher Ground,” reveals the nature of royalties in the music publishing business in his day in his brief autobiography:
As a fact beyond my ability to understand, I never edited a book of songs that reimbursed me in royalties to the amount of money it cost me to gather the copy for the printer. On the other hand, every [collection] I did compile produced from one to five songs that proved successful. “Higher Ground” was one of the first [tunes] I wrote after reaching Chicago [in 1892]. For it, I received $5.00” (Gabriel, n.d., p. 10).
The song was sold to Philadelphia songbook compiler J. Howard Entwisle, who included it in three collections in 1898: Gospel Hosannas, Praise Hymns and Full Salvations Songs, and Songs of Love and Praise, No. 5, compiled by Sweney, Frank M. David, and Entwisle (See https://hymnary.org/hymn/SLP51898/page/79).
The primary “hook” of the song is “higher ground,” words that would be repeated eight times in all—at the end of each stanza and in the refrain. Hymnologist Chris Fenner notes that Philippians 3:13b–14 provides a biblical basis for this theme: “forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (KJV). Additional passages include Psalm 18:33, Isaiah 58:14, Micah 4:1–2, and Psalms of ascent (120–134) [Fenner, 2020, n.p.].
Stanza 1 solidifies the theme of a journey toward higher ground, concluding, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” Stanza 2 emphasizes that the singer has no “desire to stay / Where doubts and fears dismay.” Stanza 3 takes a similar approach. The author wants “to live above the world, / Tho’ Satan’s darts at me are hurl’d.” The final stanza affirms the eschatological thrust of stanza 1: “I want to scale the utmost height . . . / But still I’ll pray till heav’n I’ve found, / “Lord, lead me on to higher ground.”
Gabriel cleverly mirrors the opening words of the refrain—“Lord, lift me up”—by spanning an octave that outlines the tonic chord. The words “A higher plane” coincides with the highest notes employed in the melody.
Song leader and publisher Homer Rodeheaver (1880–1955) included a favorable mention of the song in his Hymnal Handbook: “When a sermon has been preached or an invitation given to members of the church to re-dedicate their lives for service, this is an exceptionally appropriate song to sing” (Rodeheaver, 1931, p. 149). Similarly, hymnology biographer J.H. Hall notes that “Higher Ground” was a “song [that] at once took high rank among the holiness people and secured a lasting place in American hymnology. Nothing can bring forth more shouts at a camp-meeting of ‘Glory’ and ‘Hallelujah’ than the singing of ‘Higher Ground’” (Hall, 1914, pp. 357–358).
As a text writer, Oatman was a “go-to” writer who “has constantly on hand more orders for songs than he can possibly fill.” Publisher John R. Sweney noted, “What we want and what we are looking for is something new.” Oatman often came through with a new song (Hall, 1914, p. 359).
Chris Fenner, “Higher Ground” (“I’m pressing on the upward way”), Hymnology Archive (posted 21 January 2020), https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/higher-ground (accessed November 17, 2022).
Charles H. Gabriel, Sixty Years of Gospel Song (Chicago: Hope Publishing Company, n.d.).
J.H. Hall, “Johnson Oatman Jr.” Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers (NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1914).
Homer A. Rodeheaver, Hymnal Handbook for Standard Hymns and Gospel Songs (Chicago: Rodeheaver Co., 1931).
“Writer of Many Noted Hymns Answers Death’s Call Monday,” The Norman Transcript (Norman, OK: 28 Sept. 1922)
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.