History of Hymns: “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee”

by Rev. Marilyn E. Thornton

Black Church Community

"Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee," by Charles Wesley
The Africana Hymnal, No. 4092

When I was a child learning to play the piano, one of my goals was to learn all of the hymns in the hymnal that sat on the family instrument. As I made my way through the book, I began to notice numbers at the bottom of certain hymns that were not page number indications. When I asked my father what these were, he told me to figure it out for myself. Well, I did. As one who also wrote poetry, I began to see the relationship between the number of syllables in a line and the numbers at the bottom of the page. When I reported my discovery, my father, Joseph T. Thornton, Jr. then told me about common meter, short meter, and long meter. Music geek that I was, I had great fun identifying and categorizing the common meter songs, 8.6.8.6 like “Amazing Grace”; the long meter songs, 8.8.8.8 like “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow”; and the short meter songs, 6.6.8.6 like “A Charge to Keep I Have” by Charles Wesley.

“Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee” is also a hymn by Charles Wesley, and while you will not find it in The United Methodist Hymnal, it is in another United Methodist songbook, Songs of Zion, #11 (Also #120 in Zion Still Sings). Ethnomusicologist Eileen Southern, who in 1971 published the seminal resource, The Music of Black Americans: A History, counted Songs of Zion as one of the “great monuments of Black church music.” In an article entitled “Hymnals of the Black Church,” she cites the inclusion of “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee,” notated in a lined format, as a reflection of the importance of the validation of oral traditions in the Black Church. Technically, “Father” is in common meter.

Father, I stretch my hands to Thee,    (8 syllables)
No other help I know;                         (6 syllables)
If Thou withdraw thyself from me,    (8 syllables)
Ah, whither shall I go?                       (6 syllables)

However, because of the long, drawn-out manner in which it is sung, churches practicing this style of hymn singing referred to the lined-out style as “long meter” and/or “Old Dr. Watts.”

The example in Songs of Zion and Zion Still Sings gives a limited version of the melody that is used, an embellished version of the MARTYRDOM hymn tune (Hugh Wilson, 1766-1824), the same melody used for “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” by Isaac Watts. MARTYRDOM is one tune that can be used for any common meter hymn. The hymnody of Isaac Watts and Charles and John Wesley had come to the colonies during the First Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement of the 1730s-40s. Watts had published hymnals in 1707 and in 1717. John Wesley’s hymnal of 70 hymns, published in Charlestown, South Carolina, in 1737, included 35 of Dr. Watts’s hymns. Despite the ban on education of any kind—including religious education—for black people, there were those who felt it important to teach black people the correct way to sing hymns. Educated black and white clergymen alike, were disparaging of the “extravagant and nonsensical” music that the slaves composed themselves. Little did they understand that the God-given creative impulse of African-derived people could not be squashed and that whatever they were given would be converted to fulfill their own spiritual and cultural needs!

After slavery, many African Americans who could read might have the words-only hymnals of the time. In order for the congregation to learn and sing these selections, each line of the hymn would be chanted, or tuned, by a song leader or preacher—someone who could read or knew the words. After each line, in a manner quite different from the syllabic style of most hymns, the congregation would sing the lined-out phrase, adding flourishes with highs and lows to a melody that had pentatonic or modal tendencies. While the lining out of hymns was practiced in other communities of low literacy, doing so in a melismatic style (multiple notes sung within one syllable) was very particular to African Americans.

In the 1980s, I worked in a Baptist church on Chicago’s West Side that actually had a Dr. Watts Choir. As per the historical event of the Great Migration (1900-1960), many of the congregants had migrated from Mississippi, Virginia, and other points south. As a deliberate act of preservation, in every service this choir, made up of mostly elderly participants, led the congregation in the singing of a long meter hymn. They sang in an extravagantly melismatic style that obliterated the actual words, utilizing only the vowel sounds and negating the need for a correctly-fit hymn tune. “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee” was a favorite. To be authentic to the churches out of which these people had migrated, having had no pianos, they sang without accompaniment. The general effect was that of moaning—in unison.

When I moved to Nashville in the 1990’s, in order to experience again the long meter style, I deliberately visited a few black Primitive Baptist churches, many of which continue to sing a cappella, believing that because musical instruments are not mentioned in the New Testament, they should not use them. This singing style perfectly illustrates Saint Augustine’s belief that “he who sings, prays twice” and also demonstrates that “the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans” (Romans 8:26, CEB).

With the increase of literacy among African Americans, along with a contemporary and urban preference for songs that do not harken to the slave past, the lining-out of hymns can barely be heard. The sample in The Africana Hymnal, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” #4012, follows a different pattern than the one I have just described. This example, transcribed by William Moon, demonstrates the freedom given to the song leader, Robert McMichael III. While the choir sings in a free tempo, there is basically one syllable per note. You can read Mr. McMichael’s article in the lesson guide for Small Group Study and hear and see his version of long meter on the mp3 and the Reflect, Reclaim, Rejoice: Preserving the Gift of Black Sacred Music DVD.

References:

  • The Music of Black Americans: A History by Eileen Southern, Norton: NY, 1971, pages 146-7.
  • A Religious History of America by Edwin Scott Gaustad, HarperCollins: NY, 1990, pages 57-58.
  • “Hymnals of the Black Church” by Eileen Southern in Readings in African American Church Music and Worship, compiled and edited by James Abbington, GIA: Chicago, 2001, pages 147-48.
  • Songs of Zion, Abingdon: Nashville, 1981.
  • Reflect, Reclaim, Rejoice: Preserving the Gift of Black Sacred Music DVD (Discipleship Ministries, 2015)
  • Reflect, Reclaim, Rejoice: Preserving the Gift of Black Sacred Music, a study guide, (Discipleship Ministries: Nashville, 2015, “Long-Meter Hymns” by Robert McMichael, pages 25-29)
  • The Africana Hymnal: Black Sacred Music, 155 Songs (Abingdon Press, 2015, #4012, USB Flash Drive)

About this month’s writer:

Marilyn E. Thornton (B. Music History (African American Religious Music), Howard; M. Violin, Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University; M.Div. Vanderbilt) is an elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. She is the lead editor of African American Resources at The United Methodist Publishing House, music editor for Zion Still Sings and the Africana Hymnal, and a contributing writer for the Africana Worship Book Series.

Categories: History of Hymns, Music Resources, Africana Hymnal Project

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