History of Hymns: “Fill My Cup, Lord”
Fill My Cup, Lord
by Richard Blanchard;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 641; Worship & Song, No. 3093
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” wrote Thoreau in Walden. But sometimes God takes the time we sought to kill and by a kind of quiet miracle turns it into something that will live forever.
In 1953 the Rev. Richard Blanchard (1925-2004) was waiting for a couple to arrive for pre-marital counseling at Wesley Church in Coral Gables, Florida. They were late, and he was annoyed. He told his secretary he would wait thirty minutes, then he would leave. Instead of fuming, he went to a Sunday school classroom and began to doodle on the piano to kill time.
"Quite often I will play around with a song idea in my mind,” he said in a newspaper interview for the Miami Herald. “All of a sudden it will gel. A few of my songs have been given to me by the Lord. It took only six minutes to think up the words of 'Fill my Cup, Lord.' I was finished with the music in another 20 minutes. There have been a few moments in my life when things have come from God. There is no other way to explain them." (richardblanchardmusic.com).
Blanchard’s method of composition was to write the words to his pieces after developing a thought or reading Scripture, and then to write the music “by ear” to fit the words rather than composing the melody on paper. His music combines the chords and harmonies of the Big Band era with the Christian message of southern gospel music.
Published in 1959 (1964 according to the Richard Blanchard Music site), “Fill My Cup, Lord” quickly became a gospel music hit across the country. It is Blanchard’s most famous composition. The United Methodist Hymnal of 1989 includes only the hymn’s refrain. This always disappointed Blanchard. But the refrain became enormously popular as a choral response for Communion. After Blanchard’s death in 2004, Blanchard’s wife and others petitioned for the complete hymn’s inclusion, and all three stanzas were eventually published along with the familiar chorus in Worship & Song in 2011 (McIntyre, “Fill My Cup”).
The first stanza takes the image of the filled cup to a very specific biblical story, Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar (John 4:5-42). In the context of this story, what was published as a refrain in The United Methodist Hymnal takes on a deeper meaning, reminding us of the woman’s history, her questions, her perplexity, and her conversion. She had been seeking lasting joy, but like many, her search had taken her to all the wrong places. Using the image of the well’s water, Jesus promises something more: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14-15, NRSV).
The second stanza expands the focus from the woman at the well to “millions in this world who are craving / The pleasure earthy things afford”; the final stanza directly addresses the individual still hungry even after all the things the world can give.
Blanchard’s parents were Methodist missionaries in China, where he was born in 1925. When the family returned to the United States, he grew up in Depression-era Indiana, then came south to North Carolina, where his father was an Army chaplain during World War II. Blanchard attended Davidson College and graduated from Mercer University. He met his wife, Anne, who was a student at Wesleyan College in Macon. He then went to seminary at the Candler School of Theology. Ordained an elder in 1950, he transferred from the North Georgia Conference to the Florida Conference, serving United Methodist congregations there until his retirement in 1988.
Blanchard’s own cup was not filled with sweetness. A lung condition required two surgeries and left him with one-third of normal lung capacity. His son, Richard, was left a quadriplegic at seventeen after an accident. And after Blanchard and his wife moved to North Carolina in 2000 to be near their three grown children, they experienced their son’s death and the fatal illness of one of their daughters.
Nevertheless, during his forty-year ministry, Blanchard composed dozens of gospel hymns, wrote a musical about Francis of Assisi, produced a regular newspaper column, wrote a biography of Bishop John Branscomb, and launched a popular television ministry in the Miami area.
For further reading:
McIntyre, Dean. "Fill My Cup, Lord" Hymn Study
About this week’s writer:
Jim Garvey attended Catholic seminary for six years, but left to study for a Ph. D. in English literature; now retired from college teaching, he is a freelance writer and a member of St. John United Methodist Church in Augusta, GA.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.