History of Hymns: “O How I Love Jesus”

by C. Michael Hawn

"O How I Love Jesus"
Frederick Whitfield
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 170

Frederick Whitfield

There is a name I love to hear,
I love to sing its worth;
it sounds like music in my ear,
the sweetest name on earth.
O how I love Jesus,
because he first loved me.

This song fuses a 19th-century English text with an American tune, most likely from the camp-meeting era. It is this combination that provides a lilting song that Christian congregations have enjoyed for over 150 years. 

Hymns that focus on the name of Jesus are a significant subset of congregational song repertoire. The power of Jesus’ name is a theme that has many biblical sources, but perhaps none more important than the kenosis (self-emptying) hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11: It begins with, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (verse five), and concludes, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (verses 10-11). 

Many hymns follow this theme. For example, see “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! There’s just something about that name” by Gloria and William Gaither (171), “Jesus! the name high over all” by Charles Wesley (193), and “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow” by Caroline Noel (168). Stanza three of Wesley’s “O for a thousand tongues to sing” (57) ascribes power to Jesus’ name, “Jesus! the name that charms our fears….” 

John Julian’s famous Dictionary of Hymnology (1907) notes that this hymn was originally titled “The name of Jesus” in its first printing (1855) in the form of hymn-sheets and leaflets. It was later included in Sacred Poems and Prose (1861), a collection by its author, Frederick Whitfield (1829-1904). Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds traces the earliest appearance of this text in Goodman’s Village Hymn Book (1864). 

It is not clear when the tune that we know became associated with this text. For example, Ira Sankey, the musician for the famous evangelist Dwight Moody, uses a different tune in his Gospel Hymns (1896). Baptist hymnologist Harry Eskew traces the tune itself to the 1869 edition of The Revivalist

Whitfield was born in 1829 in Shropshire, England. Following his education at Trinity College in Dublin, he was ordained in the Church of England and became curate of Otley, vicar of Kirkby-Ravensworth, senior curate of Greenwich and vicar of St. John’s Bexley. His appointment in 1875 to St. Mary’s Church in Hastings signaled the pinnacle of his career. A prolific writer, he left around 30 volumes of poetry and prose. 

The refrain, “O how I live Jesus,” was not part of the original poem. The addition of a refrain was a common technique employed during the 19th century for revival songs. In many cases these refrains were associated with other texts. 

Try singing the melody of the stanza to the texts of John Newton’s “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound” and Isaac Watts’ “Alas! and did my Savior bleed,” and then add the refrain and you will see how a traveling refrain could be attached to several “mother hymns”—a term coined by Ellen Jane Lorenz, a scholar of 19th-century camp-meeting tunes. 

In stanza one, the author focuses on the sound of Jesus’ name—“it sounds like music in my ear”—and the joy of singing “the sweetest name on earth.” The second stanza focuses on what the name of Jesus stands for—“a Savior’s love” who died for our sins. Stanza three personalizes the name of Jesus who “feel[s our] deepest woe.”
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns

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