History of Hymns: “How Firm a Foundation”

by C. Michael Hawn

"How Firm a Foundation"
from Rippon’s Selection of Hymns
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 529

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

The authorship of this great hymn of the faith is one of the great hymnological mysteries. 

When John Rippon, pastor of Carter Lane Baptist Church in London, published A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors in 1787, the attribution for this hymn appeared only as “K—.” Hymnologist William Reynolds notes that the 1822 edition designated the author as “Kn,” and the 1835 edition of the collection indicated “Keen.” Finally, an 1844 edition ascribed authorship to “Kirkham.” 

Robert Keene (or Keen), a close friend of Rippon’s, was the song leader at the Carter Lane Church from 1776-1793. Mr. Reynolds believes that Keene assisted Rippon in preparing the compilation. But no hymn in the early editions appears to have been written by Keene. 

Six tunes bear the attribution “R. Keene” or “Keene,” and logic would dictate that if Keene had written the text, this would have also been clearly indicated. It is safe to say that compilers of collections in the 18th and 19th century did not take the same care to assign authorship as we have come to expect in modern hymnals. 

We know that Rippon’s Selection was very popular, with 11 editions published in England and one in the U.S. (1820) before his death in 1836. 

“How firm a foundation” was sung frequently in both the North and the South before the Civil War. Mr. Reynolds notes that it was a favorite hymn of Theodore Roosevelt, and that Andrew Jackson requested it be sung at his deathbed, and that Robert E. Lee asked it be sung at his funeral. 

The anonymous folk tune FOUNDATION is an American contribution to the hymn that first appears with the text in Joseph Fund’s 1832 Genuine Church Music under the tune name PROTECTION. 

Hymnology scholar Harry Eskew has concluded that PROTECTION was a new tune and not previously published. The composer remains unknown. 

The tune appears in other famous American 19th-century collections such as The Sacred Harp (1844) and Southern Harmony (1854) with some melodic variations and with changes in harmony, but R.M. McIntosh’s Tabor: or, the Richmond Collection of Sacred Music (1866) provides us the present form found in most Baptist and Methodist hymnals. Earlier hymnals in the U.S. often used the tune ADESTE FIDELIS, associated indelibly with “O come, all ye faithful.” 

Originally written with seven four-line stanzas, five are included in The United Methodist Hymnal with only one small alteration. The first stanza identifies this as a hymn of promises directly from Jesus. Stanzas two through five appear as direct quotations from Jesus, though many scriptural allusions come from the Old Testament. 

Hymnologist Albert Bailey carried out a detailed scriptural analysis of the hymn. Stanza two quotes Isaiah 41:10 almost verbatim: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; year, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” (KJV) 

The final stanza draws upon several sources but is especially influenced by Deuteronomy 31: 6, 8: “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.... he it is that doth go before thee; he will be with thee, he will not fail thee, neither forsake thee: fear not, neither be dismayed.” 

Regardless of authorship, we know that this hymn was written by a Christian who was extremely knowledgeable of the promises of God found in Scripture, who had most likely called upon those promises for strength in times of tribulation. 

After it arrived in the U.S., one can be sure that it was a hymn that comforted many on both sides of the Civil War. This sermon in song continues to speak just as meaningfully today. 
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns

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