History of Hymns: 'Jesus Calls Us O'er the Tumult'
By C. Michael Hawn
“Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult”
By Cecil Frances Alexander
The United Methodist Hymnal, 398
Jesus calls us o’er the tumult
Of our life’s wild restless sea;
Day by day his sweet voice soundeth,
Saying, “Christian, follow me!”
How does a hymn written for a minor saint’s day by a Victorian hymn writer known for her pedagogical hymns for children become one of the most often sung hymns on Christian discipleship?
Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–1895) was one of the most beloved hymn writers of the nineteenth century. Born Cecil Frances Humphreys in Redcross, County Wicklow, Ireland, she married Irishman William Alexander at age 32. Alexander was an Anglican rector who became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe in 1867 and, following her death, archbishop and primate of all Ireland.
Hymnologist Alfred Bailey captures the context of Mrs. Alexander’s hymns: “Before her marriage she had been a member of the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. That fact shows in her intense devotion to the religious education of children” (Bailey, 1950, p. 352). By contrast, William Alexander was a Tractarian—what might be called a "high church" devotee today—following the ethos of the Oxford Movement. She authored more than four hundred hymns—most of which were written for children before she was married. These were published in several collections, the most popular being Verses for Holy Seasons (1846) and Hymns for Little Children (1848).
Like many Christian women of this era, Mrs. Alexander was devoted to children’s religious education, using hymns as a tool in their education. She included instructions on the seasons and feasts of the Christian year. Inspired by the influential and brilliant Anglican clergyman John Keble (1792–1866) and his collection The Christian Year (1827), Alexander prepared Verses for Holy Seasons (1846), a book for Sunday-school teachers. The purpose of this collection was to use hymns as “a Christian Year for Children, in which the attempt is made, by simple hymns, to express the feelings, and enforce the instructions, which, in her distribution of the year, the Church of England suggests” (Humphreys, 1846, p. vii).
From Hymns for Little Children, a hymnic companion to the Apostles’ Creed, we still sing “All Things Bright and Beautiful”—based on “I believe in God, the Father, maker of heaven and earth”—and “Once in Royal David’s City”—interpreting “(I believe) in Jesus Christ, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary.” Appearing less often in collections today is “There Is a Green Hill Far Away”—reflecting on the clause, “Suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
“Jesus Calls Us o’er the Tumult” is the exception in that it was not written as a children’s hymn and was composed after her marriage. The hymn first appeared in a collection called Hymns for Public Worship (1852), published by the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), Tract No. 15, as a hymn for St. Andrew’s Day, November 30, displaying her priority for the Christian year.
Interestingly, Alexander’s children’s hymn for St. Andrew’s Day in Verses for Holy Seasons, “O’er all the earth, with even course, / the seasons come and go,” does not mention St. Andrew or his calling, but is a more general orientation to the concept of saints’ days. Stanza 4 states:
And thus, with feast and sacred tide,
And name of Saint and seer,
The Holy Church hath flowers to mark
Her spiritual year.
The final stanza offers the children behavioral and pedagogical reason for observing saints’ days:
Thus surely, with no causeless care,
The Church holds holy days,
That we may love Christ’s blessed saints,
And learn to tread their ways.
Given her love for the Christian year and the need for a more explicit hymn on one of the Holy Days of the sanctoral cycle (celebration of saints’ days), it is no wonder that Alexander circled back to compose a text on this theme. Though not a hymn for children, the language of “Jesus Calls Us,” her best-known hymn for adults, is direct and well-crafted to express the calling of the disciples. She composed the text soon after her marriage to William Alexander, who was at that time a priest in the Church of Ireland and living in a remote parish of Trienamongan, County Tyrone (Glover, 1994, v. 3B, p. 549). It is one of the finest hymns on Christian discipleship and commitment.
The hymn amplifies the Collect and the gospel lesson for the day, Matthew 4:18–22, and, to a lesser degree, the epistle lesson Romans 10:19–21. The Collect for the day follows:
ALMIGHTY God, who didst give such grace unto thy holy Apostle Saint Andrew, that he readily obeyed the calling of thy Son Jesus Christ, and followed him without delay; Grant unto us all, that we, being called by thy holy Word, may forthwith give up ourselves obediently to fulfil thy holy commandments; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 1789)
The Matthean text focuses on the calling of the fishermen, Andrew and Peter. In stanza 1, the image of “life's wild, restless sea”—an allusion to Matthew 14:24—is a metaphor drawn from the apostles’ experience who, as fishermen, were always subject to the peril of sudden storms. In antithesis to the cacophonous sea, the “sweet voice” of Christ invites the fishermen—indeed all people—to follow him. Some editors modify “sweet” to “clear.” While both are effective, “sweet” contrasts more effectively with the “wild, restless sea.” Paul Westermeyer offers a defense for changing the original “sweet” to “clear,” but in doing so cites several classic hymns that effectively maintain “sweet” in current usage (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 552).
Stanza two paints a picture in our mind of calling the disciples “by the Galilean lake”—a specific place.
This stanza, now omitted from or modified in many hymnals, contains the hymn’s only reference to St. Andrew:
As, of old, St. Andrew heard it
by the Galilean lake,
turned from home and toil and kindred,
leaving all for his dear sake.
When included, a common modification is “As of old apostles heard it.” In either case, following the call demanded severe sacrifice from the disciples, expecting that they leave all that was familiar and dear—“home . . . toil, and kindred . . . for [Jesus’] sake.”
As in a classic expositional sermon, the hymn writer provides the biblical context and then applies the biblical example to our lives in the remaining three stanzas. The poet calls us to turn from “the worship / of the vain world’s golden store” and “any idol that would keep us” (stanza 3).
Like the disciples, our lives will be full of “joys . . . and . . . sorrows, / days of toil and hours of ease.” Regardless of our circumstances, be they days of “cares [or] pleasures,” “still he calls us” (stanza 4).
The hymn is a straightforward, concise narrative of the account in Matthew 4. All but one of the original five stanzas conclude with Christ’s imperative to his followers, past and present—“Christian, follow me” (stanza 1); “Christian, love me more” (stanza 3); “Christian, love me more than these” (stanza 4). The hymn writer encourages the hymn singer to make a commitment to Christ in the final stanza. Stanza 5 is, according to Albert Bailey, “A prayer that we may hear the call and make it our heart’s desire to be loyal to the Savior” (Bailey, 1950, p. 355):
Jesus calls us! By thy mercies,
Savior may we hear thy call,
give our hearts to Thine obedience,
serve and love Thee best of all.
Carl Daw Jr. correctly notes that the purpose of the call articulated by Jesus in Matthew 4:19— “I will make you fishers of men” (KJV)—has been omitted (Daw, 2016, p. 686). This observation is fair. To balance this perspective is the reflection by Victorian hymn scholar Ian Bradley, who notes:
Where other more evangelical women wrote hymns to evangelize and convert, or to express in deeply personal and subjective terms their own relationship with God and Christ, Frances Humphreys [Alexander] sought simply to teach. For her, hymns were primarily catechistical aid . . . . Victorian practitioners, especially Anglicans, . . . saw their work primarily as educating people in the basic doctrines of the faith and defending credal orthodoxy (Bradley, 1997, p. 95).
Mrs. Alexander appears to have heeded this call, devoting much of her life to charitable work and social causes. She founded a school for the deaf with her sister, using funds from the sale of her poetry and hymns, participated in the establishment of the Derry Home for “Fallen Women,” and developed a district nurse service. “She was an indefatigable visitor to poor and sick” (“Biography,” PoemHunter.com, n.d.).
The tune most commonly associated with this text is GALILEE, written for the hymn by English organist William H. Jude (1851–1922). Paradoxically, this tune is more commonly sung in North America. Several other well-known tunes support this 18.104.22.168 meter, and these may be worth exploring to more fully express both the solemn nature of the call and the imperative—Follow me. For example, RESTORATION from William Walker’s Southern Harmony (1835) or PLEADING SAVIOR found in Joshua Leavitt’s Christian Lyre (1830) capture a solemn folk-like sensibility by employing a minor mode. David Hurd has composed ST. ANDREW (1980) used in H82 that, though composed in the later twentieth century, employs “a simple folk-like tune built around the tones of a pentatonic scale on F” (Glover, 1994, p. 549).
Albert Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950).
Ian Bradley, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1997).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Raymond Glover, The Hymnal 1982 Companion, v. 3B (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994).
Cecil Frances Humphreys [Alexander], Verses for Holy Seasons; with Questions for Examination (London: Francis and John Rivington, 1846), https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b11858da2772cf01402ee6e/t/5b7d613170a6ad45ce440281/1534943558260/Alexander-VersesforHolySeasons_1846.pdf (accessed December 28, 2020).
J. Richard Watson, “Cecil Frances Alexander,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/cecil-frances-alexander (accessed December 28, 2020).
_____, “Jesus Calls Us; o’er the Tumult,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jesus-calls-us-o’er-the-tumult (accessed December 28, 2020).
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
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.