Home History of Hymns: "Near to Heart of God" arises from tragic loss

History of Hymns: "Near to Heart of God" arises from tragic loss

“Near to the Heart of God”
Cleland B. McAfee
UM Hymnal, No. 472

Cleland McAfee

There is a place of quiet rest,
near to the heart of God;
a place where sin cannot molest,
near to the heart of God.

O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
sent from the heart of God,
hold us who wait before thee
near to the heart of God.

This hymn was born out of tragic circumstances. Cleland McAfee (1866-1944) suffered the loss of two infant nieces to diphtheria in 1903.

McAfee was preacher and choir director of the campus Presbyterian church at Park College, Parkville, Mo. His daughter described the account in her book, Near to the Heart of God. Hymnologist William J. Reynolds quotes the account:

“The family and town were stricken with grief. My father often told us how he sat long and late thinking of what could be said in word and song on the coming Sunday.... So he wrote the little song. The choir learned it at the regular Saturday night rehearsal, and afterward they went to Howard McAfee’s home and sang it as they stood under the sky outside the darkened, quarantined house. It was sung again on Sunday morning at the communion service.... The hymn was first included in The Choir Leader, October, 1903.”

UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton R. Young, suggests that the “stanzas affirm that near to God’s heart is a meeting place with the Savior, a place of ‘quiet rest,’ ‘comfort,’ ‘full release,’ and ‘joy and peace.’ The refrain petitions Jesus to sustain us near to God’s heart.”

A characteristic of gospel hymns of this era, especially those that employ an intimate language to express the relationship between the believer and God, is to repeat a short phrase several times, allowing the message to burrow deeper into the psyche of the singer and to plant a little kernel of truth. In this case the repeated phrase is “near to the heart of God,” which appears 12 times if all stanzas are sung and the refrain repeated after each stanza.

Uncharacteristic of gospel hymns, however, is that this hymn describes this “place of quiet rest” in the third person. Almost invariably, other hymn writers from this era in the United States and Great Britain express their relationship to God in the first person.

The unpretentious language is descriptive in the stanzas—painting a vivid picture (hypotyposis) of either the afterlife (heaven?) or a place where we can meet God face-to-face in prayer. The refrain finds its highest musical pitch on the word “Jesus”—invoking the “Redeemer” to “hold us . . . near to the heart of God.”

Cleland Boyd McAfee was a native of Missouri, graduating from Park College. He returned to his alma mater following study at Union Theological Seminary, New York, to teach and pastor the campus church as well as direct its choir.

After serving congregations in Chicago and Brooklyn (1901-1912), McAfee was appointed professor of systematic theology at McCormick Theological Seminary (1912-1930) and also served as secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions (1930-1936). He also served as moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States and authored the treatise, “The Greatest English Classic: A Study of the King James Version of the Bible and its Influence on Life and Literature.” This treatise was the result of lectures delivered in 1912 for the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.

He also penned other hymns of lesser note, including “Christian Soldiers, on to Conflict,” a temperance song (1897), and “Let Us Watch and Pray in our Master’s Name” (1917), a song about the second coming.

“Near to the Heart of God,” a simple hymn, expresses in a profound way the admonition of James 4:8, “Draw nigh unto God and He will draw nigh unto you.”

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

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