Home History of Hymns: "The God of Abraham Praise"

History of Hymns: "The God of Abraham Praise"

"The God of Abraham Praise"
Thomas Olivers
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 116

Thomas Olivers

The God of Abraham praise,
Who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of Everlasting Days,
And God of love;
Jehovah, great I AM!
By earth and heaven confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred name
Forever blest.

What hymn brings together the Hebrew Yigdal (doxology), a Welsh Wesleyan preacher and John Wesley? The answer is "The God of Abraham praise" -- a hymn that has made a fascinating journey.

In the 12th century, Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides codified the 13 articles of the Jewish Creed. These articles of the Jewish faith were later shaped into the Yigdal around 1400 by Daniel ben Judah, a judge in Rome.

Fast forward to 18th-century London. In about 1770, Thomas Olivers (1725-1799), an ardent follower of John Wesley, heard cantor Meyer Leoni sing the Doxology of the Yigdal at Duke's Place Synagogue. The Sabbath-Eve service and the music so impressed Olivers that he wrote a Christian hymn based on the Yigdal with the tune LEONI named after the cantor, Max Lyon -- Leoni being his professional name.
Some think that Leoni himself transcribed the tune for Olivers following the service. John Wesley included it in his Sacred Harmony (1780), and the tune has been paired with Olivers' paraphrase ever since.

Olivers was one of the many people from the middle and lower classes that were converted through the evangelical ministry of George Whitfield. He was orphaned at only 4 years of age and became an apprentice to a shoemaker. Young Olivers was known for his truly appalling behavior.

One day Olivers heard Whitfield preach on the text, "Is this not a brand plucked out of the fire?" from Zechariah 3:2. He was converted and his life changed dramatically. John Wesley recognized Olivers' talents and persuaded him to become one of his evangelists. Though he often experienced fierce hostility, Olivers traveled extensively throughout England and Ireland.

The opening stanza of "The God of Abraham Praise" is based on Exodus 3:6, "I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham," and Exodus 3:14, "I AM THAT I AM." Each of the original 12 stanzas is packed with scriptural allusions. UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes that "Olivers' stanzas 9, 11 and 12 are explicitly Christian, fulfilling the poet's purpose to give the paraphrase 'a Christian character.'"

The hymn found in the UM Hymnal makes use of stanzas 1, 4, 6, and 10, drawn from the version published in Augustus Toplady's Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship (1776).

Some readers may be acquainted with another translation, beginning "Praise to the Living God." It was composed around 1885 by Unitarian minister Newton Mann and Jewish Rabbi Max Landsberg. That translation appeared in The Union Hymnal for Jewish Worship (1914) and served as the basis for the hymn in the 1966 Methodist Hymnal.

The UM Hymnal has wisely chosen not to include the stanzas with an explicitly Christian focus, making this hymn useable for interfaith services with Jews and Christians. One of the omitted stanzas transforms the deliverance from Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea, a central event for Jews (and Christians), into a particularly Christological event:

Though nature's strength decay,
And earth and hell withstand,
To Canaan's bounds we urge our way
At his command:
The watery deep we pass,
With Jesus in our view;
And through the howling wilderness
Our way pursue.

Such an approach to Scripture provides insight not only into Olivers' compositional process, but also into the spirit of early Methodism. English hymnologist J. R. Watson notes that such passionate texts produced some controversy in the early movement: "[Olivers'] daring hymn shows why Methodists were distrusted on account of their enthusiasm: its verses proceed from earth to heaven in an ecstasy of imaginative excitement."

Dr. Hawn is director of the sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology.

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