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History of Hymns: "Jesus Is All the World to Me"

"Jesus Is All the World to Me"
Will Thompson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 469

Will Thompson

Jesus is all the world to me,
my life, my joy, my all;
he is my strength from day to day,
without him I would fall.
When I am sad, to him I go,
no other one can cheer me so;
when I am sad, he makes me glad,
he’s my friend.

Gospel songs offer the singer the experience of a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ in a language that is simple and down to earth. Will L. Thompson (1847-1909) fulfills this expectation in a gospel song that reflects a child-like faith and trust in Jesus, the truest friend of all.

“Jesus is all the world to me” first appeared in a collection prepared by the author, New Century Hymnal (1904).

Thompson was born in East Liverpool, Ohio. (His father Josiah served for two terms in the Ohio State Legislature.)

Thompson seemed to always have a goal of being a musician. He attended the Boston Conservatory of Music and pursued additional musical study in Leipzig, Germany, where J.S. Bach had served as a church and civic musician in the 18th century.

As a composer, Thompson achieved recognition for his contributions to patriotic and other secular songs, but his primary interest was composing sacred songs. He became a very successful music publisher, establishing Will L. Thompson & Co. offices in East Liverpool and Chicago, and earning himself a sizeable income.

Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck describes Thompson’s personal characteristics: “He was always known as a kind, quiet and unassuming Christian gentleman, greatly loved and admired by his associates.”

The theme of Christ as “friend” has deep roots in hymnody, notes UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young: “Intimate metaphors such as friend and lover, e.g., [Charles Wesley’s] ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ (479), are distinctive and compelling characteristics from seventeenth-century German pietistic hymnody that John Wesley could not abide, and he often deleted these hymns or strengthened their intimate metaphors; for example, in the first line of ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ (57), he changed ‘dear Redeemer’ to ‘great Redeemer.’”

In light of his attitude toward the use of personal language in Charles Wesley’s hymns, John Wesley would surely not have approved of the use of intimate language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it is difficult to distinguish the difference between the language expressed in this hymn from that used in a secular love song.

Note the following phrases from stanza one: “my life, my joy, my all,” “no other one can cheer me so,” and “when I am sad, he makes me glad.”

While the language of friendship continues in the remaining stanzas, it is apparent that this friend is unique: “he sends the sunshine and the rain,/he sends the harvest’s golden grain” (stanza two); “Following him I know I’m right, he watches o’er me day and night” (stanza three); “Beautiful life with such a friend, beautiful life that has no end” (stanza four).

It is possible that earthly lovers might describe their relationship in such hyperbole, but the context here makes it clear that Jesus is the only friend who offers a relationship of this kind.

The question is not whether it is appropriate to sing of a personal relationship with Jesus; thousands of songs throughout Christian history bear witness to the power of intimate expressions of faith, especially in relationship to the second person of the Trinity. The question is whether we only sing songs from this perspective.

Other persons of the Trinity tend to be ignored when singing a first-person theology; other attributes of an awesome God that moves throughout history through all times and places are rarely mentioned in first-person, intimate hymn language.

So sing “Jesus is all the world to me,” but follow it with “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation.”

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

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