History of Hymns: 'The Lily of the Valley'
By Tito Charneco & C. Michael Hawn
“The Lily of the Valley”
by Charles W. Fry
The Faith We Sing, 2062
I have found a friend in Jesus—
He's ev'rything to me,
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul;
The Lily of the Valley—in Him alone I see
All I need to cleanse and make me fully whole.
In sorrow He’s my comfort, in trouble He’s my stay,
He tells me ev’ry care on Him to roll;
He’s the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star,
He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
“The Lily of the Valley” has an extensive history. Also known by its incipit, “I have found a friend in Jesus— / He’s everything to me,” this Christological gem, with a text composed by British Methodist layman Charles W. Fry (1837–1882), has been included in more than 370 hymnals, bridging denominations, countries, cultures, and languages. It has stood the test of time for more than one-hundred-forty years.
Hymns have long played a vital missiological role both domestically and abroad. As a result, many Western hymns have been translated for the purpose of evangelization as a result of the Great Awakenings; this song is no exception. Though initially written in English in 1881, “Lily of the Valley” has been translated into other languages, including Spanish, German, and Russian.
Nineteenth-century England, much like the United States, had been greatly impacted by the Second Great Awakening, beginning in the 1790s. During this time, William Booth (1829–1912), a Methodist preacher, itinerant evangelist, and founder of the Salvation Army, worked to compile and produce a book of hymns to further his ministry. The Salvation Army—a Christian organization focused on meeting the physical and spiritual needs of people, with headquarters in London—was modeled on the military and functioned militarily, with William Booth serving as its general.
Charles William Fry—a bricklayer by trade—was a preacher and gifted musician, committed to ministry. Fry, proficient with several instruments, had military band experience, and he eventually formed a brass band named the Fry Family Band with his three sons (see picture). The story is that Fry, witnessing the abuse of Salvation Army workers, offered to serve as their bodyguard. The Fry Family Band arrived with their weapons—two cornets, a trombone, and a baritone horn or euphonium. They attracted a crowd for the preachers with their music while holding the trouble-makers at bay. William Booth was impressed by their efforts, and the first Salvation Army Band was born.
Inspired by service to the impoverished, Fry joined William Booth’s evangelistic efforts, assisting with the Christian mission and devoting himself to the aid of those in need. He became an integral part of the Salvation Army and, with the assistance of his family, helped develop the Salvation Army’s brass band tradition, one that continues to this day. The famous revival song leader Ira D. Sankey (1840–1908) promoted Fry’s hymn in his collections of gospel songs: “Mr. Fry is one of the leaders of the Salvation Army in London. In addition to writing the words, he also set the hymn to music, and later arranged it to slower time and published it in Gospel Hymns” (Sankey, 1906, p. 341).
“Lily of the Valley” highlights the redeeming power of Jesus. Each stanza draws heavily on scripture, with the first highlighting Christ’s beauty, atonement, and comfort, echoing the Bible as it crowns him, “the Bright and Morning Star.” There are multiple direct scriptural references—such as Revelation 22:16b: “I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star” (KJV). The refrain cites Song of Solomon 4:19: “He’s the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.” The hymn alludes to other scriptural references, such as atonement (Jeremiah 33:8) and making complete (Job 5:18).
The origins of both the text and music were murky for some decades. The text was sometimes ascribed “As sung by Edward E. Nickerson,” who was occasionally given credit for it and claimed copyright. Ira Sankey’s influential Gospel Hymns No. 5 (1887) appears to have solidified Fry’s authorship, though textual attribution still varied in some collections. Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds noted that
Soon after Fry’s death on August 24, 1882, the manuscript of these words, written to a secular melody, was found among his personal effects by his widow. Attached to the song was a note stating that this had been written at a Mr. Wilkinson’s home during his service in Lincoln, England, in June 1881, where Fry was a guest with the Salvation Army in that city. The words were first published in The War Cry for December 29, 1881. Words and music first appeared in Salvationist Music, Vol. 2 (1883). (Reynolds, 1976, p. 98)
The music is by William Shakespeare Hays (1837–1907), a USA steamboat captain on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and journalist for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He composed several hundred vaudeville songs, some of which were adapted for hymns. This minstrel song was written in Louisville in 1871 to a text titled, “This Little Old Log Cabin Down the Lane” (Reynolds, 1876, p. 98). It became popular in England, where Fry heard it and adapted it for a sacred text. The earliest publication of this text and tune in the United States was in Melodious Sonnets (1885) by noted gospel song composers and songbook compilers John R. Sweney (1937–1889) and William J. Kirkpatrick (1838–1921). In this collection, the musical attribution is “English Melody, arranged for this work.” Some collections state, “From a melody by J.R. Murray.” Murray (1841–1905) was a Cincinnati-based gospel song composer. Though largely the same tune, various arrangers make slight variations to the melody. The tune was used with a prohibition text, “We Have Met Rum’s Grim Apollyon” in an 1887 collection. The earliest mention of Hays’s association with the tune (according to Hymnary.org) was in Christian Hymnal, revised edition (1959). The tune appears to have received the name SALVATIONIST in Christian Praise (1964). In a letter from Salvation Army Brigadier Frank Longino, Atlanta, Georgia, to Dr. Reynolds, he notes:
I might add that this song is not entirely typical of the Army songs because, paradoxically, in our worship services, we still use the stately and formal hymns of the church. In our street services, however, we use the gay and rollicking sort, and so have become identified with this type of tune. (Reynolds, 1976, pp. 98–99)
Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the hymn remains popular in evangelical collections and, particularly, African American and Spanish-language hymnals, as “En Cristo hallo amigo.” The gospel song style and language reflecting an abiding friendship with Jesus resonate particularly well in these contexts.
The Salvation Army’s red kettles are still seen today, especially during the Christmas holiday season, as they seek donations for the needy. William Booth’s call to “Sing till your whole soul is lifted up to God, and then sing till you lift the eyes of those who know not God to Him who is the fountain of all our joy,” is still essential for believers today.
Like other hymns of the time, there is a strong theological appeal within this salvationist song, calling for constant reliance, trust, and hope in Jesus. The stanzas center on Jesus’ promises and love —both implicitly and explicitly. The listener and singer alike are drawn to God’s unfailing word to take courage and press on as they await Christ’s return.
William J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976).
“Salvation Army: Religious Organization,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Salvation-Army (accessed May 3, 2023).
Ira D. Sankey, My Life and the Story of Gospel Hymns (New York: Harper & Bros., 1907).
J. Richard Watson, “William Booth,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.
Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/w/william-booth (accessed May 15, 2023).
_____, “Charles William Fry,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/charles-william-fry (accessed May 15, 2023).
Tito Charneco serves as pastor of the Manhattan Seventh-Day Adventist Church (New York City). He recently completed a doctorate in ministry (Urban Ministry) from Andrews University’s Theological Seminary (Berrien Springs, Michigan) and is currently pursuing a doctor of musical arts at the University of North Texas (Denton, TX,) where he studies sacred music with Drs. Michael Conrady and Joshua Taylor.
C. Michael Hawn is the University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and an Adjunct Professor in the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.