History of Hymns: 'We've Come This Far by Faith'
By C. Michael Hawn
“We’ve Come This Far by Faith”
by Albert A. Goodson
Songs of Zion, 192
The Christian life is a journey. Christian hymnody in many traditions reflects this journey. Images of the church as a steadfast bulwark have often framed our understanding of God’s presence. These include “Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand” by Scandinavian pastor Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783-1872), “The Church’s One Foundation” by Anglican priest Samuel John Stone (1839-1900), and, of course, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” by Reformation leader Martin Luther (1483-1546). Each comes from a particular historical circumstance in which the images of strength and unyielding stability were important.
For many, especially those for whom security is ephemeral, the journey is a primary image. God (or Jesus) is a companion on the journey, guiding and protecting the traveler. For many in the African American community, the archetype of the journey is the Israelite exodus from Egypt. For others fleeing oppression, the flight to Egypt by the holy family provides a biblical paradigm. Songs with this theological theme are part of the African American worship tradition. The spiritual says, “Guide my feet, Lord, while I run this race.” Kenneth Morris (1917-1989), an African American Chicago-based composer and publisher, arranged a traditional gospel song or spiritual of unknown origin, “We’ve Come a Long Way, Lord,” with a similar theme:
We’ve come a long way, Lord,
A mighty long way.
We’ve borne our burdens in the heat of the day,
But we know the Lord has made the way,
We’ve come a long way, Lord,
A mighty long way.
Albert A. Goodson (1933-2003), a Los Angeles native, and his twin brother were born to Arthur and Clara Goodson, who reared them in the Pentecostal tradition. According to an interview, Albert stated, “I started my interest in music as a child. However, my parents were too poor to buy a piano, so I would take a wooden board and pretend to play on it as if it were a keyboard” (Terry, 2016, n.p.). He received his only formal music education from musicians at Los Angeles’ St. Paul Baptist Church from age twelve including gospel music legends “Prof.” J. Earle Hines (1916-1960), the congregation’s minister of music, and pianist Gwendolyn Cooper-Lightner (1925-1999). The 200-voice choir was an inspiration. Goodson lived just down the street from St. Paul and could hear their rehearsals during the week:
I enjoyed listening to the singers at the Baptist church so much they asked me if I wanted to join the choir. I said, “Yes.” They then asked if I wanted to get baptized. I said, “Whatever it takes.” And so I got baptized again. I learned everything the pianist would play. I could “hear” it during the week, and I would play it again and again in my mind (Terry, 2016, n.p.).
Cooper-Lightner formed the Echoes of Eden choir at the church, a group that helped establish the congregation’s reputation in gospel music. Weekly broadcasts each Sunday reached an estimated audience of one million people in seventeen states. These financed recordings of the choir.
Goodson’s experience as the assistant pianist for the Echoes of Eden Choir and Hines Good Will Singers prepared him to be the choir director at Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ and the Opportunity Baptist Church. He moved to Chicago in 1955 to assume the position of minister of music at Fellowship Baptist Church. At the invitation of Thomas Wyatt (1891-1964), founder of Pentecostal “Latter Rain Movement,” Goodson returned to Los Angeles in 1961 to lead the interdenominational Wings of Healing Faith Choir. This choir complemented Wyatt’s Wings of Healing Ministry. Following this, he formed the Albert Goodson Singers. His skills as a pianist were recognized by requests for him to accompany some of the gospel legends such as the Sallie Martin Singers, the Simmons-Akers Singers, the Sky Pilot Choir, Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), and Thurston G. Frazier (1930-1974), director of the Voices of Hope Choir.
In the mid-twentieth century, Chicago was a major hub of African American gospel music with the presence of composer and publisher of African American gospel music Kenneth Morris and gospel performers Sallie Martin (1896-1988), Thomas A. Dorsey (1899-1993), Roberta Martin (1907-1969), Mahalia Jackson, James Cleveland (1931-1991), and others. During this time, Los Angeles was viewed as a place of opportunity for African Americans, but it was beginning to find its gospel voice. In addition to those mentioned above, Doris Akers (1922-1995), composer of “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in this Place,” played a major role on the west coast (See Djedje, 1993, pp. 412-457). Goodson was one of the gospel artists that established Los Angeles as a center of gospel music in the African American tradition.
The first publication of the song was as a choral octavo in 1956. The first album released by Voices of Hope in 1960 included Goodson’s “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” under the direction of Thurston G. Frazier. Though Frazier is listed as the arranger of the music as found in Songs of Zion, one will recognize his influence only on the choral parts. Compared with the musical score, the accompaniment on the first recording is much more developed. This recording with Gwendolyn Cooper-Lightner on piano and Goodman on the Hammond organ is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=89&v=VNVSZ338nmQ&feature=emb_logo.
African American gospel music scholar Horace Clarence Boyer indicates the significance of this hymn in African American worship by observing that many congregations in this era began worship with “We’ve Come This Far by Faith” as the processional and concluded worship with Thomas A. Dorsey’s “God Be with You” (Boyer, 1995, p. 206). The song was composed during the brief time after Goodson moved from Los Angeles to Chicago:
I was living in Chicago, alone. I was never married, and I didn’t have a relative or a close friend in that city. I became very discouraged. One day, during a depressed state, I sat down at the piano in a friend’s home and began to play a melody running through my mind. As I played the Lord seemed to speak to me saying, “We’ve come this far by faith. . .” (Terry, 2016, n.p.).
A composer of other songs, Goodson was surprised at the song’s success:
I never thought my song would be a hit, because it sounded like a Sunday School song to me. But it just seemed to take immediately. People started singing it everywhere. I just couldn’t believe it. . . . And I’ve written other songs but they have never done what that song has done (Djedje, 1993, p. 421).
The song was first performed in 1956 by the Radio Choir of the Fellowship Baptist Church in Chicago. Goodson found solace in 1 Peter 1:7: “...the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ . . .” (KJV) (Terry, 2016, n.p.). One is also reminded of I Samuel 7:12, “Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (KJV). The famous reference to the Ebenezer stone is also cited in stanza 2 of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Robert Robinson (1735-1790). In addition, see I Chronicles 17:16b: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me hitherto?” (KJV)
Stanza 1, beginning with “Don’t be discouraged . . .,” offers encouragement with the assurance that “He’ll bear your burdens.” Stanza 2 offers a personal testimony, beginning with a spoken recitation, “Just the other day I heard a man say he didn’t believe in God’s Word . . .”. The response of the witness is, “He’s never failed me yet.”
The title of the song has been adopted by African American writers as the title for other works: Judith Weisenfeld and Richard Newman, This Far by Faith: Readings in African American Women's Religious Biography (1961) and Juan Williams and Quinton Hosford Dixie, This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience (2003). The African American Lutheran hymnal is titled This Far by Faith (1999). This hymnal provides a fuller piano accompaniment influenced by Cooper-Lightner’s arrangement.
A YouTube recording by Dr. James Abbington to accompany the African American Heritage Hymnal (2000) provides a four-part arrangement by Abbington and demonstrates the song’s continued influence (Abbington, 2008, n.p.). A pedagogical YouTube video offers instructions on how to accompany the song (“Gospel Hymn Lesson,” n.p.). Finally, the song has had “crossover” appeal with white congregations in a gospel quartet version (See “Sing Brothers Sing,” 1967, n.p.). Earlier, this hymn appeared only in African American hymnals. It now is included in recent mainline hymnals such as Chalice Hymnal (1995), Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), Glory to God (2013), and the bilingual hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo / Holy, Holy, Holy (2019).
James Abbington, 42 Treasured Favorites from the African American Heritage Hymnal (2008):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hu-yIfKsHF0&feature=emb_logo. Accessed November 17, 2019.
Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1995).
Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje, “Los Angeles Composers of African American Gospel Music: The First Generations,” American Music 11:4 (Winter, 1993), 412-457.
Gospel Hymn Lesson: We’ve Come This Far by Faith: The Gospel University
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k97r_MBF2Bc. Accessed November 17, 2019.
Sing Brothers Sing (1967), Statesmen Quartet with Lovie Lister,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=30&v=OleclpEsF9Q&feature=emb_logo. Accessed November 17, 2019.
Lindsay Terry, “Story Behind the Song: ‘We’ve Come This far by Faith’,” Lifestyle (May 19, 2016): https://www.staugustine.com/article/20160519/LIFESTYLE/305199923. Accessed November 27, 2019.
J.R. Watson, “We’ve Come This Far by Faith,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 27, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/w/we’ve-come-this-far-by-faith.
Carlton R. Young, “Albert A. Goodson,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 27, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/a/albert-a-goodson.
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.