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History of Hymns: "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy"

"Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy"
Joseph Hart
The UM Hymnal, No. 340

Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you,
full of pity, love and power.
I will arise and go to Jesus;
he will embrace me in his arms;
in the arms of my dear Savior,
O there are ten thousand charms.

Many Christian traditions have the custom of singing a closing invitation hymn. Those influenced by the frontier revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as more evangelical constituencies within several denominations today, will offer an altar call at the conclusion of worship. This is an opportunity for those present to come forward to either make a profession of faith or to seek guidance and prayer.

The invitation hymn “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy” dates from 1759, when it was published in Joseph Hart’s Hymns Composed on Various Subjects under the title “Come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.”

The original opening line, “Come, ye sinners, poor and wretched,” was modified by Augustus Toplady, the 18th-century author of “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.”

Hart (1712-1768) was born in London, where he became an independent Calvinist preacher converted by the Moravians. This hymn never made it into any of the collections published by John and Charles Wesley, perhaps because Hart was critical of one of John Wesley’s sermons in a tract he published, “The Unreasonableness of Religion, Being Remarks and Animadversion on the Rev. John Wesley’s Sermon on Romans 8:22.”

UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes that Hart’s “hymns ranked with those of Isaac Watts in popularity among independent hymn writers” of his day—quite a compliment.

Though the Wesleys were not interested in this hymn, it was included in Spence’s Pocket Hymn-Book (1785). Perhaps its popularity was greatest across the Atlantic Ocean. According to Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds, “the hymn has been a favorite of evangelicals in the United States for two hundred years.”

Later in the 19th century, Ira D. Sankey, the musical partner of evangelist Dwight L. Moody, included this hymn in his famous Gospel Hymns, Nos. 1 to 6 Complete (1894), ensuring its popularity in Sunday schools and revival settings.

The anonymous refrain, beginning with “I will arise and go to Jesus,” makes a rather oblique reference to the parable of the Prodigal Son. The refrain was found in Southern hymnbooks as early as 1811, according to hymnologist Ellen Jane Lorenz.

Mr. Reynolds calls the refrain one of the “old-fashioned camp-meeting ‘spirituals,’” in which such short choruses “floated” from text to text, serving as a refrain for an appropriate longer hymn.

Hart’s original stanza three is omitted:

Come, ye thirsty, come and welcome;
God’s free bounty glorify:
True belief, and true repentance,
Every grace that brings us nigh—
Without money
Come to Jesus Christ and buy.

The text is included in hymnals set to a variety of tunes, especially those from the shape-note tradition. They include PLEADING SAVIOR, BEACH SPRING and RESTORATION (sometimes called ARISE).

The text may be partly an autobiographical commentary on Hart’s own spiritual journey. Mr. Reynolds notes that Hart “received an excellent education and, because of his knowledge of the classics and languages, became a highly esteemed teacher.”

For a number of years he drifted from the faith of his family, and by his own confession became a “loose backslider, an audacious apostate, and a bold-faced rebel.”

In 1757, at the age of 45, he experienced a spiritual awakening after attending a service at a Moravian chapel in London. During the two years that followed his renewal, he wrote many hymns marked by earnestness and love for Christ.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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