Home History of Hymns: "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling"

History of Hymns: "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling"

“Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling”
Will Thompson
UM Hymnal, No. 348

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
calling for you and for me;
see, on the portals he’s waiting and watching,
watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home;
you who are weary, come home;
earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
calling, O sinner, come home!

Undoubtedly, many readers of this column grew up in a revival tradition that included an extended invitation hymn—a congregational hymn at the conclusion of the service that focused on those attending who may be called by the Holy Spirit to make either a profession of faith or a recommitment of one’s life. In services of this nature, the direction of the entire liturgy points to the sermon and this time of commitment. Our hymn is a classic invitation hymn from the 19th-century revival tradition.

Will Thompson

Will Lamartine Thompson (1847-1909) was born in Pennsylvania and died in New York City. He attended Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, before continuing his musical studies in Leipzig, Germany.

In addition to being a composer of secular, patriotic and gospel songs, Thompson was a music publisher. When his songs were rejected by publishers of his day, he formed his own enterprise, Will L. Thompson & Company, with offices in Chicago and East Liverpool, Ohio. By the 1880s the company expanded beyond publishing music and sold pianos, organs and other instruments and supplies.

The words and music for “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” first appeared in Sparkling Gems, Nos. 1 and 2, a collection compiled for Thompson’s company in 1880 by singing-school teacher J. Calvin Bushey.

Other well-known gospel songs by Thompson include “Jesus Is All the World to Me” (UM Hymnal, No. 469), and two with strong eschatological leanings, Lead Me Gently Home, Father” and “There’s a Great Day Coming.”

UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton R. Young, notes: “This is a typical lullaby in the gospel hymn tradition that characterizes Jesus as a mother, gently rocking and comforting a child. This attribute contributes to the continuing popularity of this genre of religious song that presents Jesus as waiting, caring, and forgiving in intimate—and for many, compelling—metaphors.”

Perhaps Revelation 3:20 captures the spirit of the hymn: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (KJV) This patient Jesus stands “on the portals . . . waiting and watching . . . for you and for me.”

The second stanza takes a different approach: How can we reject the “pleading” one who offers “pardon”? The third stanza increases in urgency: “Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing . . . shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming. . . .” The final stanza returns to the theme of Jesus who offers “mercy and pardon” for the sinner.

The genius of a gospel song is usually found in the refrain and this one is no exception. The refrain extends the invitation to “come home” four times in the melody, and an additional two times in the accompanying lower voices.

Interestingly, though “Softly and Tenderly” is the quintessential invitation hymn in the revival tradition, the invitation to “come home” may also be seen as the invitation to join Jesus in heaven. Indeed, two examples attest to this: The hymn was used during the memorial service for assassinated civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on April 8, 1968. It was also a recurring song in The Trip to Bountiful (1985), an Oscar-winning movie about an older woman in the 1940s who wants to return one last time to her girlhood hometown of Bountiful.

Hymnologist Ernest Emurian told a story associated with this hymn: “When the world-renowned lay preacher, Dwight Lyman Moody, lay on his deathbed in his Northfield, Massachusetts, home, Will Thompson made a special visit to inquire as to his condition. The attending physician refused to admit him to the sickroom, and Moody heard them talking just outside the bedroom door. Recognizing Thompson’s voice, he called for him to come to his bedside. Taking the Ohio poet-composer by the hand, the dying evangelist said, ‘Will, I would rather have written “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” than anything I have been able to do in my whole life.’”

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary’s sacred music program.