Home History of Hymns: "Come, thou Fount of every blessing"

History of Hymns: "Come, thou Fount of every blessing"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Come, thou Fount of every blessing"
Robert Robinson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 400

Robert Robinson

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of thy redeeming love.

Perhaps all hymns are to some extent autobiographical in that they reveal something of the author’s spiritual experience. In some hymns, the autobiographical thread is stronger and more obvious. Such is the case with British Baptist hymn writer Robert Robinson (1735-1790), who as a barber’s apprentice, fell under the powerful influence of George Whitefield’s preaching.

A favorite line in the last stanza, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” is thought to be particularly autobiographical, referring to Robinson’s early life, when his mother sent him to London to be an apprentice. It was during this time, according to hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck, that “he associated with a notorious gang of hoodlums and lived a debauched life” until he came under the spell of Whitefield.

After his conversion in 1755, Robinson first preached at a Calvinistic Methodist chapel at Mildenhall, Suffolk, and then founded his own independent congregation at Norwich. He was re-baptized in 1759 after taking up Baptist theological perspectives.

This led to his nearly 30-year relationship (1761-1790) as pastor of Stone Yard Baptist Church at Cambridge. Baptist hymnologist William Reynolds notes that Robinson “was an unusual man, and, while lacking formal education, he rose to great prominence as a preacher, scholar.” Robinson published A History of Baptism in 1790.

“Come, thou Fount of every blessing,” written in 1758, was the first hymn in A Collection of Hymns for the use of the Church of Christ, Meeting in Angel-Alley, Whitechappel . . . (1759). Martin Madan included the first three stanzas in his Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1760), which established the practice of eliminating the original fourth stanza.

UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young laments the omission, saying it “eliminates the apocalyptic climax of the author’s invitatory prayer to the Holy Spirit.”

The missing stanza follows:

O that Day when freed from sinning,
I shall see thy lovely Face;
Clothed then in blood-washed Linnen [sic]
How I’ll sing thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransom’d Soul away;
Send thine Angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless Day.

One of the most obvious biblical allusions appears in stanza two: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer/ hither by thy help I’m come.” The Hymnal Revision Committee for the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal received requests to alter this stanza by omitting the term “Ebenezer,” which means “Stone of Help,” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12: “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” But not finding a suitable substitute, the Committee chose to maintain the original language.

On this side of the Atlantic, the tune NETTLETON has been the most common but not exclusive musical setting for this famous and well-loved text. NETTLETON first appeared in John Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813).

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.

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