Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: ''Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus'

History of Hymns: ''Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus'

By C. Michael Hawn

"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus"
by Louisa M. R. Stead
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 462

'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
and to take him at his word;
just to rest upon his promise,
and to know, "Thus saith the Lord."
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him!
How I’ve proved him o'er and o'er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
O for grace to trust him more!

From her childhood, the call to missionary service was the guiding motivation for Louisa M. R. Stead (c. 1850-1917). Born in Dover, England, and converted at the age of nine, Stead came to the United States in 1871, living in Cincinnati. She attended a camp meeting in Urbana, Ohio, where she dedicated her life to missionary service. Ill health prevented her from serving initially. She married in 1875, and the couple had a daughter, Lily. Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck describes a major turning point in the family’s life:

“When the child was four years of age, the family decided one day to enjoy [a] sunny beach [on] Long Island, New York. While eating their picnic lunch, they suddenly heard cries of help and spotted a drowning boy in the sea. Mr. Stead charged into the water. As often happens, however, the struggling boy pulled his rescuer under water with him, and both drowned before the terrified eyes of wife and daughter. Out of her ‘why?’ struggle with God during the ensuing days glowed these meaningful words from the soul of Louisa Stead.”

The hymn, “’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus” was inspired by this personal tragedy.

Soon after, Lousia and Lily left for the Cape Colony, South Africa, where Louisa worked as a missionary for fifteen years. She married Robert Wodehouse, a native of South Africa. Because of her health, the family found it necessary to return to the United States in 1895. Wodehouse pastored a Methodist congregation during these years until, in 1900, they returned to the mission field, this time to the Methodist mission station at Umtali, Southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe).

Kenneth Osbeck records a message sent back to the United States shortly after her arrival in Southern Rhodesia:

“In connection with the whole mission there are glorious possibilities, but one cannot, in the face of the peculiar difficulties, help but say, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ But with simple confidence and trust we may and do say, ‘Our sufficiency is of God.’”

Her daughter Lily married after their return to Africa. Louisa retired because of ill health in 1911. Lily continued to serve for many years in South Rhodesia. Her mother passed away after a long illness in 1917 at her home in Penkridge near the Mutambara Mission, fifty miles from Umtali. Following her death, it was recorded that Christians in South Rhodesia continued to sing her hymn in the local Shona language.

While the exact date of the composition is not known, sometime between 1880-1882, Lousia Stead’s hymn was first published in Songs of Triumph (1882). The Rev. Carlton R., Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, describes the hymn’s content as “a series of loosely connected key evangelical words and phrases.” Indeed, the hymn is full of the language of piety common to the day in evangelical circles. Furthermore, the succession of stanzas lacks the usual progression of ideas leading to heaven that characterizes most gospel hymns.

Perhaps the hymn might be best described as a mantra on the name of Jesus. Indeed, “Jesus” is sung twenty-five times if one sings all four stanzas and the refrain. Stanza one is a simple statement of “trust in Jesus.” The singer is invited to “rest upon his promise.” Though the “promise” is not specifically articulated, it is assumed that all know that this is the promise of salvation. The stanza ends with “Thus saith the Lord” – a phrase, interestingly enough, that appears 413 times in the Old Testament in the King James Version, and is a reference to God rather than Jesus.

Stanza two continues the theme of trust, drawing upon the “cleansing blood” of Jesus. The poet demonstrates her trust as she “plung[es] . . . neath the healing, cleansing flood,” a possible reference to the William Cowper (1731-1800) hymn, “There is a fountain filled with blood”: “. . . and sinners plunge beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” The typology of the cleansing flood may find its biblical roots in Genesis 6-7, the account of Noah and the great flood, or perhaps the blood and water that flowed from the crucified Christ’s side (John 19:34), or even a conflation of these ideas. Cowper’s hymn was probably well known to Stead, and she referenced it in her hymn.

Stanza three stresses that one should die to “sin and self” by “simply taking life and rest, and joy and peace” in Jesus. Stanza four is a personal witness by the author that she is “so glad I learned to trust thee.” The final stanza concludes with a fleeting eschatological reference, “thou art with me, wilt be with me to the end.” Though this reference to heaven is not as pronounced as one would often find in similar gospel hymns of this era, especially in Fanny Crosby. Referencing heaven in some way is virtually obligatory in this theological context.

The refrain establishes the Jesus mantra, singing his name five times, the last strengthened by adding the qualifying, “precious Jesus.” Though the singer has “proved him o’er and o’er,” the prayer is for “grace to trust him more.”

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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