Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand"

History of Hymns: "On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand"

By C. Michael Hawn

"On Jordan's Stormy Banks I Stand"
Samuel Stennett
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 724

Samuel Stennett

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wishful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.
I am bound for the promised land;
Oh who will come and go with me?
I am bound for the promised land.

Samuel Stennett (1727-1795), an English Baptist, came from a long line of ministers. He was the son of a Seventh-Day Baptist pastor.
In the 18th century, university education was not easily available to nonconformist families—those who refused to swear allegiance to the Church of England. Stennett did study at the academy at Miles End with distinction, however.

In spite of his nonconformist religious stance, Stennett was a personal friend to the reigning monarch, King George III. Stennett was honored in 1763 with a doctor of divinity degree from King’s College, Aberdeen, for his accomplishments.

He served as an assistant to his father in his congregation in 1747 and assumed the position of pastor upon his father’s death in 1758. He was called as pastor of the Sabbatarian Baptist Church in 1767, a congregation that had been served by his grandfather, but declined the call. While continuing his other position, he preached to the Sabbatarian congregation every Saturday for 20 years.

John Rippon, an English Baptist pastor, published in 1787 an influential collection, A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors. Thirty-eight of Stennett’s hymns appeared in this popular collection. Among those was a hymn under the heading of “Heaven Anticipated” with the title of “The Promised Land” in eight four-line stanzas.

The hymn as it appeared in America looked and sounded much different. William Walker’s The Southern Harmony (1835) was the first to include “The Promised Land.” This was one of the most popular of the 19th-century, oblong-tune books with shaped notes.

The tune PROMISED LAND was paired with the text. The Southern Harmony attributes the tune to “Miss M. Durham” but we know nothing else about the composer. The tune has many of the characteristics the traditional folk melodies of the time.

Originally written in a minor mode, Rigdon M. McIntosh, a Southern musician, altered the tune to the major mode, and as was customary among American evangelicals in the 19th century added a refrain beginning with “I am bound for the promised land.” This version was published in 1895 in H. R. Christie’s Gospel Light and has become the standard version for many hymnals since that time.

From the start, the four stanzas focus on heaven. The singer stands on the banks of the Jordan River looking across to the “fair and happy land” of Canaan—a metaphoric mixture of images from the books of Exodus and Revelation. Our true “possessions” lie in Canaan (Heaven) and not on the earthly side of Jordan.

In stanza two we find that Canaan is a land of “wide extended plains” where “the eternal day” is always shining. In this land Jesus (“God the Son”) reigns. Furthermore, stanza three tells us that Canaan is a spiritually healthful place to live: “No chilling winds or poisonous breath can reach that healthful shore.” Therefore, “sickness and sorrow, pain and death” do not exist in Canaan.

In the final stanza, the singer obviously cannot wait to get there. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, we will “see [our] Father’s face, and in his bosom rest.” The refrain gives the hymn a sense of marching forward to eternal life.

Carlton R. Young, editor of The UM Hymnal, places this hymn within the context 19th-century American expansion: “The British poet composed these apocalyptic lines with an ear towards Exodus and Revelation in another setting. USA evangelicals and their song transformed the text into earthly and vital metaphors of the vision, vigor, enthusiasm, and optimism of frontier life moving on to the promised land of Kentucky or Missouri.”

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

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