Home History of Hymns: "There's Within My Heart a Melody"

History of Hymns: "There's Within My Heart a Melody"

"There's Within My Heart a Melody"
Luther Bridgers
UM Hymnal, No. 380

There's within my heart a melody
Jesus whispers sweet and low:
Fear not, I am with thee, peace be still,
in all of life's ebb and flow.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,
sweetest name I know,
fills my every longing,
keeps me singing as I go.

Luther Bridgers

Luther Burgess Bridgers (1884-1948) was a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Born in North Carolina, he attended Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. Though he did not graduate, he was the pastor of congregations in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Georgia. In addition to pastorates, he served as an evangelist in the southern United States and abroad, including mission activities in Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Russia.

At first glance, this hymn appears to be a quintessential example of a song of amazing faith born out of tragedy. Indeed, there are several famous examples of such hymns. For example, Thomas A. Dorsey's "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" (UM Hymnal, No. 474) was composed in 1932 shortly after his wife's death in childbirth followed by the death of the infant. Horatio G. Spafford wrote "It Is Well With My Soul" (UM Hymnal, No. 377) after his four daughters were tragically lost at sea in 1873. If one visits Internet sources, various heart-rending accounts exist about "There's within my heart," some with immense detail of the events surrounding the creation of this hymn. It is common for some writers about hymns to fill in the gaps in a story with imagination rather than fact.

Scholars agree that Bridgers experienced an immense loss in his life. While he was preaching a revival at Middlesboro, Kentucky, Bridgers left his wife and three small sons with her parents in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. At the conclusion of the revival, March 26, 1911, he received a call that his wife, Sarah, and all three sons, ages five, three, and seven months, had lost their lives in a fire.

The date of the tragic fire -- March 26, 1911 -- is crucial because numerous writers have attempted to link the composition of the gospel song with this event. However, as hymnologist William Reynolds, writer of this column for ten years, has demonstrated, the song was penned the previous year in 1910. Reynolds provided the following correspondence to the Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The UM Hymnal:

"[The hymn] was first published in [The Revival No. 61] 1910 by Charlie D. Tillman, a well-known publisher in [Atlanta,] Georgia. When [Bridgers] had finished the words, [he] picked out the melody on the piano, and his wife's sister wrote down the notes he played to complete the song."

The author draws upon a number of metaphors to describe the story of his redemption and the joy that Jesus brought to his life. His relationship with Jesus is intimate as Jesus "whispers" a melody "sweet and low" in his heart. The words of that melody are a conflation of two passages, "Fear not, I am with thee" (Isaiah 41:10) and "Peace, be still" from the account of Jesus' calming of the storm on the lake found in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 8:23-27; Mark 4:37-41; Luke 8:23-25). Composers of gospel songs are often less systematic about how they choose and develop scriptural allusions than other hymn writers.

Stanza two continues the musical metaphor by contrasting the joy of the first stanza with a life "wrecked by sin and strife" and "discord." In a poetic turn, the author notes that

Jesus swept across the broken strings,
stirred the slumbering chords again.

The third stanza chooses the metaphor of "waters deep" and "path [that] seems rough and steep" to symbolize the trials of life.

The fourth stanza invites us to "feast. . . on the riches of his grace [and] rest. . . neath his sheltering wing." The latter image is found in several of the Psalms including 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; and 91:4.

The final stanza, typical of so many gospel songs, carries us to heaven "far beyond the starry sky" where Jesus will take us when he returns:

I shall wing my flight to worlds unknown;
I shall reign with him on high.

The last line is perhaps an allusion to Revelation 20:6 when the saints "shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years." (KJV)

Perhaps the best evidence that this hymn was not written as a response to a tragic event is internal to the hymn itself. Dorsey and Spafford both composed hymn texts and tunes that come from the sorrow of loss and work through their grief in a meaningful way. Bridgers' text and tune, if it had been written immediately following the death of his entire family, would certainly not follow a normal pattern of grief with its jaunty melody. One might assume under the circumstances that the composer was in denial.

While indeed hymns are sometimes forged in the fires of tragedy, this appears not to have been case here. Bridgers remarried in 1914 and continued his long ministry until his retirement in Gainesville, Georgia, in 1945.

This fact does not negate the popularity of this hymn and its appearance in a wide variety of hymnals and song collections. Of the fourteen songs listed by the author on one reliable website, this is the only hymn with wide circulation, appearing 150 times. Several vocal artists, including Jake Hess, Babbie Mason, and Slim Whitman have recorded the song. No doubt they have all cited the apocryphal story of a hymn inspired by the composer's personal tragedy.

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