Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Close to Thee"

History of Hymns: "Close to Thee"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Close to Thee"
Words by Fanny Crosby; Music by Silas J. Vail
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 407

Fanny J. Crosby

Thou my everlasting portion,
more than friend or life to me,
all along my pilgrim journey,
Savior, let me walk with thee.
Close to thee, close to thee,
all along my pilgrim journey,
Savior, let me walk with thee.

Many hymn texts are inspired by a preexisting tune. Such is the case with “Close to Thee.” Silas Jones Vail (1881-1884) was born in Brooklyn and became a prominent and successful businessman, a manufacturer of hats. Though an amateur composer, he was very prolific in compiling song collections. His Athenaeum Collection (1863) contained unpublished songs by the well-known American composer Stephen Foster. His Chapel Melodies was a collection of hymns for “Prayer and Social Meetings and Family Devotion” (1868).

Prohibitionists Horace Walters and W. F. Sherwin requested his services to compile Songs of Grace and Glory (1874) to support this movement. Vail also prepared The Diadem: A Collection of Tunes and Hymns for Sunday School and Devotional Meetings (1885), as well as wrote the music for a number of lesser-known gospel songs including “Scatter Seeds of Kindness” by May R. Smith, “The Guiding Hand” by Fanny Crosby, “Nothing but Leaves” by Lucy Ackerman, and “The Gate Ajar for Me” by Lydia Baxter.

Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), one of the most famous American hymn writers of her time, often composed hymns texts to previously composed music. For example, Crosby immediately was inspired by Phoebe Palmer Knapp’s (1839-1908) tune for the hymn that became “Blessed Assurance” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 369).

According to her book, Memories of Eighty Years (1906), Crosby had a similar experience when Vail brought the poet one of his new melodies: “Toward the close of a day in 1874 I was sitting in my room thinking of the nearness of God through Christ as the constant companion of my pilgrim journey, when my heart burst out with the words.” Vail published the hymn in his Songs of Grace and Glory the same year.

The desire for an intimate relationship with Jesus is a primary theme of many of the hymn writers during the nineteenth century, especially women poets on both sides of the Atlantic. Englishwoman Sarah Flower Adams (1805-1848) expressed a similar relationship in “Nearer, My God, to Thee” The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 528). Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871) conveyed the idea of total surrender to Jesus in her famous hymn, “Just as I Am” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 357).

Fanny Crosby often described her relationship to Jesus in intimate terms in her hymns. “Close to Thee” employs a technique common to gospel songs, the repetition of the key theme. If all three stanzas are sung, one will sing the key phrase, “close to thee,” twelve times. A companion idea, “walk with thee,” is mentioned an additional four times.

In stanza one, the poet seizes upon the metaphor for Christ, “everlasting portion.” One usually thinks of the word “portion” as a measurement of food, or a part of the day. Jesus becomes a portion of the singer’s life, a portion that never can be exhausted. Indeed, the next phrase describes the significance of this “portion”: “more than friend of life to me.” The Christian life as a “pilgrim journey” is an extensive metaphor that runs deep in literature, perhaps most prominent in the spiritual epic by John Bunyan (1628-1688), Pilgrim’s Progress (1684), written two centuries earlier. For Methodists, there is the added meaning of the journey toward Christian perfection, the state of personal holiness as one seeks to become more Christ-like.

In stanza two, the author makes it clear that walking with Christ is not easy and may require one to “toil and suffer.” When walking with Jesus, one will not partake in “worldly pleasure” or achieve “fame.” The final stanza extends the journey “through the vale of shadows” and “o’er life’s fitful sea” – images of passing from earthly life through the “gate of life eternal.” As a Methodist, the poet understood that Christian perfection is achieved in heaven where one experiences closeness to Christ for eternity.

Fanny Crosby, blind at the age of six weeks, was a lifelong Methodist. She began composing hymns at age six. She became a student at the New York Institute of the Blind at age fifteen and joined the faculty of the Institute at twenty-two, teaching rhetoric and history. In 1885, Crosby married Alexander Van Alstyne, also a student at the Institute, and later a faculty member. He was a fine musician and, like Fanny, a lover of literature.

An author of more than 8,000 gospel hymn texts, she drew her inspiration from her own faith. Crosby published hymns under several pen names including “Ella Dale,” “Mrs. Kate Gringley,” and “Miss Viola V. A.” Her hymn texts were staples for the music of the most prominent gospel songwriters of her day.

Because of her long life, Fanny Crosby had an extraordinary relationship with several United States presidents, even penning poems in their honor on occasion, and she was influential on the spiritual life of or a friend to Presidents Martin Van Buren (8th), John Tyler (10th), James K. Polk (11th), and Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th). She addressed a joint session of Congress on the topic of education for the blind.

Middleclass women in nineteenth-century United States had little voice in worship. One of the only ways for a woman to claim the authority to be heard was by direct personal revelation from God. Fanny Crosby readily claimed God’s personal revelation as a source for her hymns; her personal revelation then became a communal inspiration as Christians throughout the world sang her hymns and confirmed her faith experience as their own.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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