History of Hymns: “O Thou, in Whose Presence”
By C. Michael Hawn
"O Thou, in Whose Presence," by Joseph Swain;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 518
O Thou, in whose presence my soul takes delight,
On whom in affliction I call,
My comfort by day and my song in the night,
My hope, my salvation, my all!
Joseph Swain (1761-1796) provides a lesser-known hymn that alludes to passages of Scripture with an exotic, almost mystical quality to this eighteenth-century poem. Swain was a Baptist minister in England. As a child, he was orphaned and apprenticed to an engraver. Prior to his conversion, he published A Collection of Poems on Several Occasions, containing The Poet, Solitude, Beauty, Hendon Grove, Verse on Miss V****n, benevolence, and Gratitude (1781). After he bought a Bible and began to study it seriously, he converted and was baptized in 1783 under the preaching of John Rippon (1751-1836), himself a lover of hymns and an editor of song collections, the most famous and influential being A Selection of Hymns, from the best authors (1787). Swain was called to a Baptist mission in Walworth in 1791.
According to The United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young, “O Thou, in Whose Presence” is one of several evangelical hymns that came to the U.S. from England that were matched with a melody from the United States and took on the feel of a folk hymn. Two others are "Amazing Grace" and "How Firm a Foundation." (Young, 1993, 532). The hymn appeared in Swain's Experimental Essays on Divine Subjects, in verse and prose: and hymns for social worship (1791) in nine eight-line stanzas. Baptist hymnologist William J. Reynolds notes that the text with the tune DAVIS appeared in three early nineteenth-century American tune books, the most well-known being John Wyeth's Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813) (Reynolds, 1975, 170). For all nine original stanzas, see https://hymnary.org/text/o_thou_in_whose_presence_my_soul_takes_d.
Originally titled "A Description of Christ by His Graces and Power," portions of the hymn’s first stanza allude to parts of the first three chapters of Song of Solomon. For example, this love song to God and Jesus Christ draws from the ideas of Song of Solomon 1:7 in stanza one of the hymn: “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?” (KJV)
Stanza 2 of the hymn as it appears in The United Methodist Hymnal (actually the second half of the first stanza in the original) draws on themes from Psalm 23:2 and 4:
Where dost Thou, dear Shepherd [at noon-tide], resort with Thy sheep,
To feed them in pastures of love?
Say, why in the valley of death should I weep,
Or alone in this wilderness rove?
The reference to the “dear Shepherd” has been substituted for the original “at noontide” — a change that made the reference to Psalm 23 even clearer.
Stanza 3 — “O why should I wander, and alien from thee” — in The United Methodist Hymnal is actually the first half of stanza 2 in the original hymn.
Stanza 4 — “Restore, my dear Savior, the light of thy face” — in The United Methodist Hymnal is not a part of the original nine stanzas (Reynolds, 1975, 170). This was a popular hymn that appeared in a number of tune books of the day. It was common practice to conflate stanzas and insert others from different sources if the editor so chose.
Stanza 5 – in The United Methodist Hymnal, the first half of stanza 5 in the original, ends in an imaginative description of a heavenly scene:
He looks! and ten thousands of angels rejoice
and myriads wait for his word.
He speaks! And eternity, filled with his voice,
reechoes the praise of the Lord.
Between stanzas 3 and 5 as cited in The United Methodist Hymnal are remarkable stanzas in the original hymn that draw on images from the Song of Solomon and other passages of Scripture. The Scriptural passages cited are representative and illustrate of themes that permeate the hymn, not comprehensive:
This is my beloved, his form is divine, [Song of Solomon 2:8-10; Matthew 3:17]
His vestments shed odors around;
The locks on his head are as grapes on the vine, [Psalm 128:3; John 15:1]
When autumn with plenty is crowned.
The roses of Sharon, the lilies that grow [Song 2:1-2]
In vales on the banks of the streams; [Isaiah 66:12]
On his cheeks, in the beauty of excellence blow,
And his eyes are as quivers of beams!
His voice as the sound of a dulcimer sweet, [Daniel 3:5; 3:10; 3:15]
Is heard through the shadows of death;
The cedars of Lebanon bow at his feet, [Psalm 29:5; 92:12; Ezekiel 31:3]
The air is perfumed with his breath. [Proverbs 27:9]
His lips as a fountain of righteousness flow, [Proverbs 10:11]
That waters the garden of grace; [Song 5:1]
From which their salvation the Gentiles shall know, [Isaiah 66:12; Acts 28:28]
And bask in the smiles of his face.
The result is a mystical collage of evocative images appealing to the senses, infused with Scripture. Indeed, these two stanzas were prominent in various tune books in the nineteenth century, including Southern Harmony (1835) and Christian Harmony (1867), both edited by William [“Singing Billy”] Walker (1809-1875). The example displayed here from Southern Harmony uses the haunting melody SAMANTHA (melody in the middle voice) and begins with “His voice as the sound of the dulcimer sweet.” Stanza 2 uses the first stanza in The United Methodist Hymnal cited at the beginning of this article.
Mystical, biblically based poetry was in the English poetic tradition with poets like George Herbert (1593-1633) approximately 125 years before Swain; but when Swain’s text traveled across the Atlantic, it was infused with the American folk tradition, the rich symbolic poetry appealing to the imagination of singers, especially in those publications that were not a part of mainline church traditions.
This hymn provides an excellent example of the fluidity of stanzas and changes that can take place from the original when included in publications compiled by different editors. Some stanzas are deleted; stanzas are rearranged; and outside stanzas may be added according to the preferences and purposes of the editor and the community for whom the collection is being prepared.
Returning to the poet Joseph Swain, a final collection of his hymns appeared in 1792 (Second Edition, 1796) entitled Walworth Hymns, by J. Swain, Pastor of the Baptist Church meeting there. His tenure at East Street Baptist Church in Walworth, South London, lasted only a few years — from 1791 until his death in 1796 at 35 years of age. In spite of a church split (between Strict and Particular Baptists), the Strict Baptist congregation that remained grew under Swain’s leadership, and the building was enlarged. Job Upton delivered Swain’s funeral sermon titled The Sorrowful Separation of the Faithful Pastor from his Flock (1796). In those days, pastors not a part of the Church of England were labeled nonconformists. Thus Swain was interred at Bunhill Fields with a number of other nonconformists, including Daniel Defoe (1661-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe (1719), and the famous “Father of English Hymnody” Isaac Watts (1674-1748).
For further reading:
Reynolds, William J. Companion to Baptist Hymnal. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1975.
Watson, J. R. "Joseph Swain." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 10, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/joseph-swain.
Young, Carlton R. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director for the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University