History of Hymns: 'I Come to the Garden Alone'
By C. Michael Hawn
“I Come to the Garden Alone” (“In the Garden”)
by C. Austin Miles
The United Methodist Hymnal, 314
I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses,
and the voice I hear falling on my ear
the Son of God discloses.
And he walks with me, and he talks with me,
And he tells me I am his own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
Some hymns have the distinction of being adored by many and, simultaneously, scorned by an equal and opposing group. Such is the case with “In the Garden.” The hymn had not appeared in The Methodist Hymnal (1966). Looking ahead to the next official hymnal, Carlton R. Young noted, “This was one of the most requested of hymns to be included in [The United Methodist] hymnal , and it is also one of the least liked, often denounced as erotic and egocentric” (Young, 432).
Let us begin with the poet’s own account of the hymn’s composition, as he describes “the greatest morn in history”:
One day in March, 1912, . . . I drew my Bible toward me; it opened at my favorite chapter, John 20 [1-18] . . . That meeting of Jesus and Mary Magdalene had lost none of its power to charm.
As I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, “Rabboni!”. . .
My hands were resting in the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches. [The author then describes the arrival of Mary, Peter, and John as they gathered at the tomb, followed by the appearance of Jesus.]
I awakened in full light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has appeared (Sanville, 14).
This was an account of a quasi-mystical vision by C. Austin Miles (1868-1946), a Pennsylvania-educated pharmacist turned gospel song publisher and writer, as he reflected on Christ’s resurrection after reading John 20. Though it is doubtful that this article will change the minds of many readers who either cherish or despise this hymn, perhaps I can place Miles’s song in the broader context of congregational singing and in the era of hymnody from which it comes.
Point of View
How does this hymn fit in the greater understanding of Christian hymnody and congregational singing? Everything we sing in worship has a point of view. The psalms comprise a body of literature that incorporates a wide variety of points of view. By point of view I mean, what is the perspective? Is the hymn written in the third person – about God, for example, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty”? Is it in the second person, addressing God directly as “You” – “Breathe on me, breath of God”? Is the hymn in the first-person plural, “we” – “Shall we gather at the river?” These points of view are the easiest to incorporate into public Christian worship. The use of “I,” “my,” or “me” – the first-person singular – requires more discernment. Some want to dismiss, out of hand, songs from this perspective from corporate worship. Yet, would not our worship be diminished if we did not sing Isaac Watts’ “I sing the almighty power of God,” Charles Wesley’s “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise,” or the African American spiritual “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?”? Many hymn writers incorporate more than one perspective in their hymns. See for example, John Thornburg’s “God, the Sculptor of the Mountains” covers three points of view in a single stanza. Ultimately, when choosing congregational song for worship, the answer revolves around a balance of perspectives.
C. Austin Miles noted in his narrative that after reading John 20, “I seemed to be part of the scene.” He felt he was walking with the risen Christ in the garden on that morning. For some, this may almost seem a sacrilege – too personal. The opposite perspective of the Resurrected One would be the cosmic Christ:
Crown him with many crowns,
the Lamb upon his throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns
all music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing
of him who died for thee,
and hail him as thy matchless king
through all eternity (Matthew Bridges, 1851).
Although many Christians sing both of these hymns with gusto, others may lean solidly one way or another.
How does “In the Garden” fit within its general era of congregational song? Hymns in the first-person singular have a long history in the life of the Christian church. For example, “My God, I love Thee, not because” is a nineteenth-century translation by Edward Caswall of a sixteenth-century Latin poem ascribed to St. Francis Xavier, a Spanish Jesuit missionary. Of course, the eighteenth-century hymn writer Charles Wesley often reveled in the use of first-person singular, examples being, “A charge to keep I have” (1762) and “And can it be that I should gain” (1738). The seventeenth-century Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt composed the Holy Week text, “O Sacred Head, now wounded” that concludes with the powerful stanza:
What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest Friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O! make me thine forever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord let me never, never
outlive my love to thee
(Trans. James Waddell Alexander, 1830).
Language of Intimacy (Bride of Christ)
However, during the last half of the nineteenth century witnesses the emergence of a number of evangelical poets on both sides of the Atlantic, many of them women, who cultivated through their verse a language of intimacy with Jesus. This intimacy echoes the theological concept of the human (male or female) relationship with “the Bride of Christ” found in the Gospels, including John 3:28, Matthew 25:1-13 (Hobbs, 87). In Great Britain, the most notable of these were Charlotte Elliott (“Just as I am, without one plea”, 1841), Katherine Hankey (“I love to tell the story”, 1866), Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane (“Beneath the cross of Jesus”, pub. 1872), and Frances Ridley Havergal (“Lord, speak to me”, 1872). To be clear, these were rarely sung at the time of their composition in Great Britain, especially in the Church of England, and were often first published in poetry collections or religious periodicals rather than in hymnals. With the exception of Havergal’s hymn, which found almost immediate use in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1875), only later did these poems find a place in public worship. They span the genres of devotional poetry and congregational hymn.
In the United States, other women were also composing in this language of intimacy, including Annie S. Hawks (“I need Thee every hour”, 1872), Anna Bartlett Warner (“Jesus loves me”, 1859), Adelaide Addison Pollard (“Have Thine own way, Lord”, 1902), and, of course, Fanny Crosby (“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine”, 1873; “I Am Thine, O Lord”, 1874). Literary scholar June Hadden Hobbs, citing Fanny Crosby’s “All the way my Savior leads me,” notes that “The hymn itself transforms a particular experience into a guide for living that pictures Jesus as a companion on the path of life” (Hobbs, 105). These hymns provided an intimate narrative glimpse into the spiritual lives of these women that “suggest[s] that the story of a hymn is almost as important as the hymn itself and that hymns are perceived as autobiographical statements” (Hobbs, 105). Because of the growing evangelical community in the United States, these texts were usually set to music within a short time of their publication by some of the leading gospel song composers of the day, unlike the verse of their British counterparts.
Many readers will know and appreciate these hymns. “In the Garden,” though written by a man, has much in common with this general perspective. Miles’s account adopts the autobiographical character and intimate language that was prevalent in evangelical circles among women just a few decades before “In the Garden” was written.
Romantic Era Influences
Recalling the statement in Miles’s account – “I seemed to be part of the scene” – one notes the similarities between the empirical experience of the senses in this text and other Romantic era poems. For example, “the dew is still on the roses” describes both a glistening visual sight and implies dampness in the morning air. In stanza two, Miles evokes the sense of sound: “He speaks, and the sound of his voice/is so sweet the birds hush their singing. . .”.
Compare this with the appeal to the senses made in English writer Eleanor Farjeon’s well-known hymn, “Morning has broken” (1931):
Morning has broken
like the first morning, [sight]
blackbird has spoken
like the first bird. [sound]
. . .
Sweet the rain’s new fall
sunlit from heaven,
like the first dewfall
on the wet grass. [sight and touch]
Praise for the sweetness
of the wet garden. . . [smell]
Farjeon clearly invites the singer “to be a part of the scene” in a similar way, though she reserves the use of first-person singular for the final stanza: “Mine is the sunlight . . . ”
Having considered the broader poetical context in which “In the Garden” appears, let us turn to the hymn itself. There is no doubt that, when compared to the biblical account, Miles’s account lacks specificity on the one hand, while embellishing the scene on the other. Turning first to the lack of specificity, Baptist scholar Donald Hustad asks, “What garden?” (Hustad, 1966, 49) Indeed, the reference to walking in the garden is more reminiscent of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8) than the encounter with the risen Christ. Furthermore, Christ is not mentioned directly by name, but only as the “Son of God” and in the third person as “He” or “Him,” although it is implied that Jesus is at the center of the narrative. While the name of Jesus is most often directly invoked in gospel songs, other names do appear instead; for example, “Lamb of God” (Elliott’s “Just as I am”). Miles’s own account states that he felt that he was a witness to the events – “I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, ‘Rabboni!’” – yet Mary Magdalene, the other major actor in this minidrama, is not mentioned by name at any point. The result for the singer suggests that Miles has pushed Mary aside, even written her out of the narrative, and that he (or we as singers of the hymn) actually stand in for her.
Embellishments to the biblical account include descriptions such as “dew . . . on the roses” (stanza one) and “birds hush their singing” (stanza two). Donald Hustad responds to these criticisms in this way: “The truth is that, while the song may not often be sung with understanding, C. Austin Miles’s words are an imaginative, perceptive and accurate rendering of one of the most beautiful narratives in the New Testament” (Hustad, 1983, 244). Hustad then brings out the crux of the argument, which is not based on the accuracy of the hymn or its personal point of view, but on the appropriate presentation of the hymn in public worship:
“. . . all the essentials of the story are found in the hymn’s lyrics. It is probably true that this hymn is so personal an expression of the composer that it should not be sung in corporate worship without an explanation of its background” (Hustad, 1983, 245). It is informative, even moving, to read Hustad’s interpretation of the major points of the hymn and how they relate to the scriptural narrative. It is sensitive and imaginative, indicating that this hymn – indeed many hymns – would benefit from a contextual introduction before singing. (See the link at Hustad, 1983, in Sources). In this case, this verse spans the genres of private devotional poetry and congregational song. Many who asked the deeply personal question on Maundy Thursday at the Communion Table, “Lord, is it I?” (Matthew 26:22), may also take great comfort in the personal assurance of the presence of the risen Christ on Easter Sunday.
The final line of the refrain begs reflection: “And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Donald Hustad interprets this line in the following way: “Mary’s joy was unique; she was first to know that Christ had risen and would ever live with us” (Hustad, 1983, 245). This is a fair interpretation if the singer understands that the song implies Mary’s presence in the dialogue with the risen Christ and that the “I” of this hymn is a first-person account told by Mary Magdalene. Since she is not mentioned by name in the hymn, the tendency may be for the singer unwittingly to take Mary’s place. If this is the case, then we have a theological problem. The idea that Easter is concerned primarily with any one person’s individual walk with Jesus, as important as that is, flies in the face of the Resurrection as an event of cosmic proportions where the risen Christ restores creation and redeems humanity.
The popularity and theme of perfect companionship in this well-known hymn transmitted a message of reconciliation and hope that was realized in the mystical closing scene of the film Places in the Heart (1984). A country choir sings “In the Garden,” while the film’s characters who had participated in the loss, struggle, tragedy, death, and hate fostered by the racism and poverty of the Depression Era in a rural Texas town were sharing in the distribution of the communion elements: youtube.com/watch?v=4uQCyxBL2O8.
Miles’s life, initially as a pharmacist in Philadelphia, blossomed as a writer of gospel songs after 1892. Following the acceptance of his first song, “List, ‘tis Jesus’ voice,” by the Hall-Mack Publishing Company in Philadelphia, he was appointed eventually as editor and manager. He led the company through a merger with the Rodeheaver-Ackley Company in 1935-1936; the new company was named the Rodeheaver-Hall-Mack Company, residing in Winona Lake, Indiana. Homer A. Rodeheaver (1880-1955) was a prominent evangelist, music director, music publisher, and composer who was especially known for his baritone voice and trombone playing. He reached the zenith of his influence as the music director for Billy Sunday (1862-1935), the most popular evangelist of the early twentieth century.
The joining of the two companies resulted in one of the most successful gospel song publishing endeavors of the first half of the twentieth century, pioneering the production of gospel song recordings. Many readers may have sung another famous gospel song by Miles, “Dwelling in Beulah Land” (“Far away the noise and strife”) in The Cokesbury Hymnal (Nashville, 1923, No. 234).
I recall visiting a hymnology class taught by William J. Reynolds (1920-2009), the original writer of the “History of Hymns” column, first for The Nashville Banner (1979-1998) and then for The United Methodist Reporter (1998-2003). He was a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Dr. Reynolds discussed the controversy surrounding the hymn's inclusion in the then forthcoming Baptist Hymnal (1975), which he had edited. This gospel song had not appeared in the earlier edition, Baptist Hymnal (1956), although it was well known in the popular The Broadman Hymnal (Nashville, 1940), an unofficial collection comparable to the Cokesbury Hymnal. Reynolds had received a groundswell of requests for its inclusion in the next collection.
During one meeting of the hymnal committee, Dr. Reynolds recounted that there were numerous critiques of the hymn’s personal, first-person language and its suitability for corporate worship; just before the vote was to be taken, it appeared that the committee would not be including “In the Garden.” After some heated exchanges, a pastor stood and began quoting Psalm 23, emphasizing specific words: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside still waters. He restoreth my soul. . ." (KJV). The committee then voted to include the hymn, and it has appeared in all official Southern Baptist hymnals since that time.
Sources and Further Reading
June Hadden Hobbs, “I Sing for I Cannot Be Silent”: The Feminization of American Hymnody, 1870-1920 (Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997).
Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden,” The Hymn 34/4 (October 1983), 244-245.
Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden”: A Hymn Story, Crusader Hymns and Hymn Stories (Chicago: Hope Publishing Co., 1966, 1967), 49-50.
George Sanville, Forty Gospel Hymn Stories (Winona Lake, IN: Rodeheaver-Hall Mack Co., 1943).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.