History of Hymns: 'Surely the Presence of the Lord'
By Garth Baker-Fletcher
“Surely the Presence of the Lord”
by Lanny Wolfe
The United Methodist Hymnal, 328
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place;
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can feel the brush of angels’ wings,
I see glory in each face,
Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.*
*© 1977 Lanny Wolfe Music, admin. Gaither Copyright Management. All rights reserved.
We sang these words as teenaged Jesus people in the late 1970s standing in rapt devotion, with our hands raised in awe. This song depicted our spiritual unity, a closeness accomplished even though we were from often conflicting denominations. It was emblematic of our shared charismatic experience our home churches did not provide.
Lanny Wolfe (b. 1942) wrote the words in Columbus, Mississippi, at a dedication service of a new church in 1977. Recalling this moment, Wolfe says that he remembered Jacob’s dream of a ladder with angels ascending to and descending from heaven: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not” (Gen 28:16, KJV). His inspiration transformed that verse into the praise song, “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this place.” Hearing chord progressions that he normally did not use, Lanny took a leap of faith and taught the song to his Trio onstage, and then invited the congregation to join! Hastily scribbled on notepad paper, the manuscript is now framed and enshrined in the foyer of that church (Matthews, 2017, n.p.; Terry, 2002, pp. 21–22). The Lanny Wolfe Trio, his primary gospel songwriting and ministry vehicle in the 1970s and ‘80s, grew into the Lanny Wolfe Singers in the early 1990s.
Wolfe is a versatile musician, singer, music educator, and prolific composer. He has written over seven hundred songs and fourteen musicals and has been involved in more than seventy recording projects. A member of the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI), his musical style is a unique blend of Southern Gospel, folk, and the musical interpretation common in many black churches. With such a diverse blending, his music has been performed by a variety of gospel musicians—from black church gospel artists like Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, and large choirs like the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and Mississippi Mass Choir, to white Pentecostal singers like Dottie Rambo. “Surely the Presence” has been one of Wolfe’s most popular songs since the late 1970s.
He has won many awards, including a Dove Award as the Gospel Music Association’s Songwriter of the Year (1984), and a Grammy Award for “Rejoice with Exceeding Joy” (1978), played yearly at the candle-lighting ceremony in the Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida. His catchy tune “Greater Is He that Is in You” (1973) was chosen as the closing song for the Oral Roberts television ministry for six years.
Before 1993, Wolfe taught music in several Bible colleges, including Gateway College of Evangelism (1968–1974) and Jackson College of Ministries in Jackson, Mississippi (1974–1993). Since 1993, he taught music at South Texas Bible Institute in Houston, Texas, a UPCI institution, and served as Director of Music/Worship Pastor for churches in Texas, Florida, and Indiana. He is now the CEO of Paradigm Music Productions, and he conducts choral clinics and offers concerts.
Like many hymns throughout the ages, “Surely the Presence of the Lord” is written from the first-person perspective. The composer employs “I,” repeated in the second, third, and fourth phrases, and connects it with sensory metaphors to describe God’s presence: “I can feel,” “I can hear,” “I see.” Wolfe’s melody is memorable and conventional, moving almost totally by the interval of a step. The final cadence is a simple and beautiful progression: ii7, V7, to I. The sonic landscape combines repetitive chanting with a sense of romantic intensity, representing both the love of God and the believer’s spiritual/sensual experience of being in the “presence” of God.
Wolfe composed two additional stanzas not included in hymnals. (For complete text, see https://genius.com/Heritage-singers-surely-the-presence-lyrics). Stanza one elaborates on Matthew 18:20 with the lyrics:
In the midst of his children the Lord said he would be,
It doesn’t take very many, it can be two or three.
The next line celebrates with the hymn “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” the tangible sense of feeling “that same sweet spirit that I’ve felt oft-times before.”
The second stanza alludes to the stirring theophany of God at Mt. Sinai found in Exodus 20:18–21 and Deuteronomy 5:22–27: “There’s a holy hush around us as God’s glory fills this place.” The next line references the woman with an issue of blood who “came behind [Jesus] and touched the border of his garment” (Luke 8:44, KJV):
I’ve touched the hem of his garment,
I’ve almost seen his face.
The next line echoes the third phrase from Psalm 16:11—“at thy right hand is fullness of joy”—as representative of ecstatic contact with the Holy Spirit: “And my heart is overflowing with the fulness of his joy.” With all its scriptural allusions, “Surely” is a song of rejoicing and experiencing true spiritual rapture, awe, and the sweet assurance that results from being in the presence of God’s Spirit.
Diana Leigh Matthews, “Behind the Song: Surely the Presence” (May 7, 2017), https://dianaleaghmatthews.com/surely-the-presence/#.YIH-5i2caCe (accessed May 14, 2021).
Lindsay Terry, The Sacrifice of Praise: Stories Behind the Greatest Praise and Worship Songs of All Time (Nashville: Integrity Publishers 2002).
“Lanny Wolfe Biography,” Paradigm Music Productions, https://paradigmmusic.net/111-2/ (accessed April 30, 2021).
“Lanny Wolfe,” Southern Gospel History, https://www.sghistory.com/index.php?n=L.LannyWolfe (accessed April 30, 2021).
Noteworthy YouTube links:
Pentecostal Televangelist-Singer Jimmy Swaggart Sings the song on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWl-W_SQaKA.
The Chancel Choir of The Woodland UMC (Texas) sings an arrangement with a full orchestra (2018): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6ZOVBYxBJk.
Dr. Garth Baker-Fletcher is an ordained Baptist minister. He holds a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School (1991), where his published dissertation was on the topic “Somebodyness: The Concept of Dignity in the thought of Martin Luther King Jr.” He is a student in composition in the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studies hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel.