Home History of Hymns: Gospel hymn celebrates Christ's gift of salvation

History of Hymns: Gospel hymn celebrates Christ's gift of salvation

“Victory in Jesus”
M. Bartlett
UM Hymnal, No. 370

I heard an old, old story
how a Savior came in glory,
how he gave his life on Calvary
to save a wretch like me;
I hear about his groaning,
of his precious blood’s atoning,
then I repented of my sins
and won the victory. *

It is perhaps a fluke that “Victory in Jesus” appears in the United Methodist Hymnal (1989). The hymnal’s editor, the Rev. Carlton R. Young, notes that a majority of the Hymnal Revision Committee was not at first familiar with the hymn. Then one of the committee members, the Rev. Charles M. Smith, a district superintendent from North Carolina, introduced it to the others saying, “This is the most requested recent gospel hymn from my district.”

Based on reactions to the earlier Methodist Hymnal (1966), the committee had noted there was a need to include more gospel songs in the 1989 book. In part this was a response to the decline in theologically mainline denominations such as the United Methodist Church and a rise in the membership of charismatic and evangelical congregations.

Dr. Young summarizes the struggle this presented for the committee: “To the consternation of the classically trained, the solution early on was expressed in simplistic terms of ‘how many and which ones,’ rather than ‘should we?’ The whole matter of popular religious song was potentially so divisive that, as with language, it was given to a special group of experts and practitioners to name, frame, and suggest the repertory in a proposal that would be considered by the hymns subcommittee.”

This archival photograph depicts a revival meeting in Walker County, Ala., circa 1898. This week’s hymn, “Victory in Jesus,” comes from the tradition of Southern revivalism, notes columnist C. Michael Hawn. IMAGE COURTESY FIRST CHURCH OF THE NAZARENE, JASPER, ALA.

The subcommittee engaged the advice of a consultant who had surveyed smaller congregations in his central Indiana district. He had located the most popular gospel songs appearing in five often-used hymnals and songbooks other than the hymnal used by the Evangelical United Brethren (1957) and the 1966 Methodist Hymnal. A mandate from the 1984 General Conference to the Hymnal Revision Committee was to “be sensitive to the needs of small membership churches.”

“Victory in Jesus” was written by Missouri native Eugene Monroe Bartlett Sr. (1885-1941). Bartlett was trained at the Hall-Moody Institute in Martin, Tenn., and the William Jewell Academy in Independence, Mo. As president of Hartford Music Company, he edited many songbooks as well as a music magazine, Herald of Song.

Hymnologist Paul Hammond notes that Bartlett was affiliated with the Stamps-Baxter Music Company, Dallas, Texas, and the James D. Vaughan Music Company, Lawrenceburg, Tenn., both very popular publishers among rural churches. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 1979.

“Victory in Jesus” is still a favorite of many Southern Baptist congregations, large and small. It meets the criteria for a gospel song including a stirring refrain, a focus on Christ’s substitutionary atonement, the salvific story of the gospel message, and the hope of heaven—ending on an eschatological note. The hymn is steeped in biblical witness, especially references in the second stanza to the healing ministry of Christ.

The author borrows heavily from images and rhetoric in earlier hymns: The reference to “an old, old story” reminds us of “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus” (1885), UM Hymnal, No. 277. The phrase “beyond the crystal sea” (stanza three) may refer to “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” (1886), which concludes its refrain with “gathered by the crystal sea.” Reginald Heber’s “Holy, Holy Holy” (1826) mentions saints “casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.” The reference to “streets of gold” may be found in any number of Stamps-Baxter gospel songs. The allusion to a “mansion . . . in glory” (stanza three) is derived from John 14:2 and cited in many gospel songs such as “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (1864), UM Hymnal, No. 172. Finally, the reference to “plung[ing] . . . beneath the cleansing flood” may hark back to William Cowper’s “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” (c. 1771), UM Hymnal, No. 622. Undoubtedly, these hymns and many others were in Bartlett’s memory bank as he composed his hymn.

The triumphal theology, somewhat cliché-ridden text and blood references place this hymn in the least-likely-to-be-sung category for many people. But for others, it expresses a piety that is close to their heart.

This hymn belongs to a waning theological stream and musical style that was prominent during the revivalist era in the decades after 1860. It is a product of Southern revivalism and Southern Baptist piety. However, “Victory in Jesus” also represents one aspect of the theological diversity found among United Methodists.

* © 1939 Eugene M. Bartlett, renewed 1967. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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

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