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History of Hymns: “My Faith Looks Up to Thee”

by Natalie Hise

"My Faith Looks Up to Thee"
Ray Palmer
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 452

Ray Palmer

My faith looks up to thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary,
Savior Divine!
Now hear me while I pray,
Take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day
Be wholly thine.


This famous hymn is a thoroughly 19th century American work in both its poetry and music. 

Born in Little Compton, R.I., Ray Palmer (1808-1887) grew up in the Boston area and attended Phillips Academy and Yale University. After graduation, he taught at women’s schools in New York and New Haven. Following studies in theology, he was ordained in 1835 and served churches in Bath, Maine and Albany, N.Y. 

At age 22, Palmer wrote what journalist and contemporary Amos R. Wells described in his book A Treasure of Hymns (1914) called the “greatest hymn written by an American.” Wells quotes Palmer as saying, “The words of the hymn were born of my own soul.” 

In Our Hymnody, Methodist hymnologist Robert Guy McCutchan relates that the poet was so caught up in the emotion of the final line “a ransomed soul” that he was “brought to tears.” He copied the words into a small leather bound book that was carried in his pocket and frequently brought out to read during meditations. 

Musician Lowell Mason (1792-1872), the composer of the tune OLIVET, was born in Medfield, Mass. Although he showed an interest in music as a child, he gave no thought to making it his profession. 

While living in Savannah, Ga., Mason worked as a bank clerk and studied music on the side. It was during this time that he began composing. Once his music was successful, Mason returned to Boston as music director at Bowdoin Street Church and president of the prestigious Handel and Haydn Society. 

In Boston, Mason became the first American public school music teacher. In 1833, he co-founded the Boston Academy of Music, and in 1835, had conferred on him New York University’s first doctor of music degree. Three years later, Mason became music superintendent for the Boston schools. 

Mason wrote over 1,600 sacred works. Jacob Henry Hall, in the book Biography of Gospel Songs and Hymn Writers, called him the “father of American church music.” 

Palmer, a future doctor of theology, and Mason, a doctor of music, met by chance in 1830 in Boston. Mason asked Palmer if he had anything that could be included in Spiritual Songs for Social Worship, a collection that was being readied by Mason and Thomas Hastings for publication a year or two later. 

Palmer showed Mason the leather book containing his poem originally in six stanzas. The two men stepped into a store so Mason could make a copy of Palmer’s words. It wasn’t until he reached home that evening that the now immortal stanzas were read, and Mason immediately wrote the tune OLIVET, the only tune ever used for Palmer’s poem. 

Palmer felt his hymn was successful since it “embodied, in appropriate and simple language that which is most central in all true Christian experience—the act of faith in the divine Redeemer—the entrusting of the individual soul to Him entirely and for ever.” 

Robert J. Morgan says in his popular book Then Sings My Soul that Mason once told Palmer, “you may live many years and do many good things, but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author of ‘My Faith Looks Up to Thee.’” 

In A Treasure of Hymns, journalist Wells related an incident connected with “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” Just before a major Civil War battle, eight Christian soldiers met in a tent to pray. Fearing death, they wanted to send a message of comfort to their families, and in doing so, copied the final stanza which each signed. The next morning, seven of the soldiers were killed. 
 

Ms. Hise is a church music student of Dr. Michael Hawn’s at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns