Article

History of Hymns: “Grace Greater than Our Sin”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Grace Greater than Our Sin"
Julia H. Johnston
The UM Hymnal, No. 365

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin!


Julia Harriette Johnston (1849-1919) was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who served First Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Ill. She lived in Peoria from age 6.

Johnston was faithful to the ministries of the church, serving as a Sunday school superintendent and teacher for 41 years. She was also president for two decades of the Presbyterian Missionary Society, an organization founded by her mother.

She authored several books including Indian and Spanish Neighbors (1905) and Fifty Missionary Heroes (1913). In addition to many Sunday school lessons, she also wrote about 500 hymn texts; today her reputation rests primarily upon the hymn “Grace Greater than Our Sin.”

The writer contrasts the theme of God’s abundant grace—manifest through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross—with “our sin and our guilt” (stanza one), “sin and despair” (stanza two), and a “dark . . . stain” (stanza three).

This “marvelous, infinite, matchless grace, freely bestowed on all who believe,” finds a scriptural basis in Paul’s teaching of justification by faith in Romans 5:1-2: “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”

Paul continues in verses 14-16, “Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression, who is the figure of him that was to come. But not as the offence, so also is the free gift of grace. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many. And not as it was by one that sinned, so is the gift: for the judgment was by one to condemnation, but the free gift is of many offences unto justification.”

The text and tune of the hymn first appeared in Hymns Tried and True, a 1911 collection by composer Daniel B. Towner (1850-1919). According to UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young, Towner was “a distinguished Methodist musician.” He studied first with his father and then with famous gospel song composers such as George Root and George Webb.

Towner then served in Methodist Episcopal churches in New York, Ohio and Kentucky. In 1893 he was named head of the music department at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, working with the famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Dr. Young notes that Towner “composed over 2,000 songs and was associated with the publication of fourteen collections.”

Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds noted that the name MOODY was given to this tune in recognition of Towner’s association with and service to Moody Bible Institute and its founder.
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns