ALTARnative Music: Songs of Christian Faith

This CD is a fabulous tribute to favorite hymns of faith, but performed by each artist in their own style, bringing their hearts and souls to these songs of honor to God. Please order one to share with a friend or family member; they make a wonderful gift to include with a greeting card.

We thought you might enjoy a bit of history about the songs on the CD, so we've posted it below, along with some other talents not featured on the record, but who contributed in various other wonderful ways.

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Besides the wonderful recording artists on the album, this record would not have been possible without the help of these people: Terri Asher at Asher Arts (cover art); Jon Elefante at Listen Up Productions (mastering); Roger Perry at City Lights Management (title); Joe Wrabek for all the fine research on the hymns (posted below); and everyone else who supported and contributed to this project. THANK YOU!

“NEARER, MY GOD, TO THEE” (lyrics 1841, music 1856)  

“Nearer, My God, to Thee,” a hymn usually assoicated with tragedy and disaster, dates from 1841.  The lyrics were penned by British poet, actress and songwriter Sarah Flower Adams (1805-48), and are based loosely on Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:11-12, which describes a ladder to Heaven, with angels ascending and descending.  Three different melodies have been associated with the song; the most popular and enduring was the tune “Bethany,” written by Lowell Mason in 1856.  

The hymn got lasting fame because of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912; survivors reported the haunting image of the ship’s band (which stayed on board) playing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the vessel sank.  (Methodists are usually quick to point out the band would have been playing the Methodist melody, not Mason’s, because the bandleader was a Methodist.) The hymn was also played in 1901, following a nationwide five minutes of silence in memory of assassinated President William McKinley—reportedly, McKinley’s last words were from the song.  The hymn was also played at the interment of President James Garfield (who was also assassinated) and the funeral of President Gerald Ford (who was not).  

The Titanic image was parodied in The Simpsons Movie, where the band Green Day breaks into “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the barge they’re playing on begins to sink into a toxic lake.  And media mogul Ted Turner, in announcing the creation of CNN, told reporters, “We will cover the end of the world, live … and when [it] comes, we’ll play ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’ before we sign off.”

  “JESUS LOVES ME” (lyrics 1860, music 1862)   Anna B. Warner

(1827-1915) is credited with writing the lyrics to “Jesus Loves Me” in 1860, but reportedly only actually wrote the first verse.  David McGuire wrote two more, and others have been added since.  The lyrics had been requested by Anna’s sister Susan, who was writing a novel and wanted a “comforting hymn” one of her characters could sing to a dying child.  Susan Warner’s novel, Say and Seal, was published in 1860, with Anna’s lyrics in it.  Composer William Bradbury (1816-68) ran across the lyrics while reading the book, and wrote the music in 1862.  He also added the famous “Yes, Jesus loves me…” chorus (the song originally didn’t have one).  

Anna and Susan Warner were daughters of a wealthy New York attorney, Henry Warner.  After their father went near-bankrupt in the Panic of 1837, the two girls turned to writing to make money.  Anna also taught Bible classes to cadets at nearby West Point.  Bradbury, one of the best-known 19th-century composers of Gospel music, was a self-taught organist and voice teacher (he eventually got formal training) whose “Juvenile Musical Festivals,” held at a Manhattan church and featuring as many as a thousand children at one time, promoted the idea of music instruction in public schools.  

The song’s compelling melody and simple lyrics made it ideal for 19th-century missionaries preaching in foreign countries, and many reported hearing it sung by “heathen children” in places missionaries hadn’t visited before.  “Preaching by proxy,” Dr. Jacob Chamberlain called it when he ran across Hindu children singing the song in a remote part of rural India.  Rev. Harutune Jenayan got free passage through bandit-infested territory in Asia Minor in 1891 after his 3-year-old daughter sang the song in the local dialect for the bandit chief (no one apparently questioned the wisdom of taking a 3-year-old on horseback through bandit territory in the first place).  “Jesus Loves Me” has been translated into numerous languages, including Cherokee, Tagalog, and Klingon.  

  “JUST AS I AM” (lyrics 1835, music 1849)  

For most of the 19th-century, hymns were about the only outlet for women writers.  Secular writing was frowned upon as “unwomanly,” but hymnwriting—which a century before had been the exclusive preserve of male ministers—was considered “safe.”  For Charlotte Elliott (1789-1891), writing was about all she could do.  She’d been disabled by a crippling fatigue since her early 30s.  Over a 40-year period, Elliott penned 150 hymns, and published four collections of hymns that included her work and others’.  The most famous of her hymns is “Just As I am,” written in 1835.  

One story claims the inspiration for the song was Elliott’s own conversion. 

The Swiss evangelist Cesar Malan was visiting the Elliott family in England, and asked the ailing Charlotte if she was a Christian. Charlotte took offense—her own father was a minister, after all—but later asked Malan what she had to do to find God.  “You have nothing of merit to bring to the table,” she was told.  “Just come as you are.”  

It was, however, not until 12 years later that Elliott wrote the lyrics, as part of a fund-raising appeal for a school for clergymen’s daughters.  Upset that she couldn’t help physically, Elliott reportedly hit upon the idea of encouraging others like herself, using the “just come as you are” theme. Monies from sale of the lyrics helped build the school.  

In 1849, composer William Bradbury (1816-1868) wrote the music most often associated with “Just As I Am.”  The hymn has also been sung to music written by Henry T. Smart (1875) and Arthur H. Brown (1890).  The song is regularly used as an “altar call to the faithful” in church services.  The Rev. Billy Graham used it that way in his “crusades” of the 1950s, and titled his 1997 autobiography Just As I Am.


“HOLY, HOLY, HOLY” (lyrics 1826, music 1861)  

Anglican clergyman Reginald Heber (1783-1826) wrote “Holy, Holy, Holy” as part of a project.  When the Anglican Church split from the Catholics during the reign of Henry VIII of England, the new church retained a lot of Catholic practices—including that of having each Sunday celebrate something different, often with different-colored vestments and different prayers.  Heber wanted to create a book of hymns appropriate for each different Sunday of the church year.  Heber’s project was nixed by church superiors in London and was never completed.  

It was after Heber’s death in India in 1826 that his widow found the lyrics of 57 Heber hymns in a trunk, including “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and had them published as Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Service of the Church Year.  It is not known precisely when Heber wrote this hymn.  

“Holy, Holy, Holy” was written for the service on Trinity Sunday, which occurs eight weeks after Easter.  Trinity Sunday celebrates the “triune God”—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—which is a central tenet of Catholic (and Anglican) doctrine.  (That’s why the word “holy” is sung three times in a row, virtually everywhere it occurs.)  The text is based on Isaiah 6:3.  

Heber had been the curate of an obscure Anglican parish (what was called a “living”) when he accepted a big promotion, to be “Lord Bishop” of Calcutta, in India, in 1823.  It was hard work in a hot, humid climate, and Heber died after only three years on the job.  He reportedly suffered sunstroke while preaching to a large outdoor crowd, and then suffered a cerebral hemmorage when he took a cool bath.  

John Bacchus Dykes (1823-96) wrote the music specifically for “Holy, Holy, Holy” in 1861.  Dykes called his tune “Nicaea,” after the Roman city where the “triune God” doctrine was first promulgated, in 325 A.D.

  “WERE YOU THERE?” (traditional Negro spiritual)  

“Were You There (When they Crucified My Lord)?” is a Negro spritual whose authors are unknown.  It is believed to have first been sung in the southern Appalachians in the mid-19th century, making it a slave song rather than a church song.  Musicologists have backed up that contention, citing the relatively complex vocal patterns; Southern slaves, they note, mostly didn’t have musical instruments to work with—only vocals and percussion. (Instruments were acquired during the Civil War—usually, ones that had been abandoned by Confederate soldiers.)  

The song has a Good Friday theme—walking the listener step by step through the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ.  That’s why the song is regularly used in Easter church services today.  Slaves related to the Crucifixion because it was a classic miscarriage of justice.  Jazz historian Consuela Lee notes the deliberate use of the word “tree” in the song, rather than cross.  “Jesus of Nazareth was lynched,” she said.  “The slaves knew what that was.”  

The song may have had its first exposure to white audiences in the 1870s, when the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of ex-slaves, began touring the U.S. and Britain. “Were You There?” has been recorded by Roy Acuff, Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, and Randy Travis, as well as numerous Christian and Gospel singing groups.  The song appears on two Johnny Cash albums (one recorded with his wife, June Carter).  

  “ROCK OF AGES” (lyrics 1763, music 1830)  

“Rock of Ages” is a real rock, located in Somerset, England.  The Rev. Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-78) took shelter in a big crack in the rock during a violent thunderstorm in 1763, and while waiting for the storm to pass, began penning a hymn on a playing card about the “rock of faith” providing shelter from the “storms of life.”  Toplady’s “Rock of Ages” was published 12 years later, in The Gospel Magazine (he was editor at the time).  The rock in Somerset was subsequently named after Toplady’s song (as was a nearby tea-shop).

 The music usually associated with the song, a tune called “Toplady” written by Thomas Hastings, wasn’t published until 1830.  (18th-century hymns often didn’t have music—they were simply sung to whatever popular tunes happened to be around.)  

Toplady spent much of his short life picking arguments with fellow cleric John Wesley, founder of Methodism—arguments which Wesley, for his part, seems to have tried to ignore.  Some of the lines in “Rock of Ages” have been characterized as criticisms of Wesley—the two differed, for instance, on whether mankind had free will, or had to depend entirely on God for salvation—but may simply reflect Toplady’s generally Calvinist bias.  Today, any fine points of doctrine that may or may not have been promoted by the song are largely ignored; the song is simply sung, by a wide variety of denominations.  

“Rock of Ages” was a favorite of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who requested it be played when he was on his deathbed. 



“BLESSED ASSURANCE” (lyrics 1873, music 1873)  

“Blessed Assurance” is one of the few instances where the music of an old hymn was written first, and lyrics subsequently written deliberately for the music.  Reportedly, composer Phoebe Knapp (1839-1908) had blind lyricist Frances Jane “Fanny” Crosby (1820-1915) over for a visit, and asked her opinion of a new tune Knapp had written, called “Assurance.”  Crosby’s response—“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!”—became the first line of the song.  Both Knapp’s music and Crosby’s lyrics were written in 1873.  The lyrics are based on St. Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:22).  

Crosby, a teacher at the New York Institution for the Blind, began writing Sunday school songs in 1864, and had written over 8,000 lyrics by the time she died at age 95.  Most of her lyrics still have not been set to music.  Her husband, composer and musician Alex Van Alstyne, was also blind.  Knapp, married to Metropolitan Life Insurance founder Joseph Knapp, was a wealthy “social activist” and close personal friend of Crosby’s.  Only two of Knapp’s musical compositions are well-known: “The Cleansing Wave,” written for her mother, and “Assurance,” which became “Blessed Assurance” with Crosby’s lyrics.  Crosby copyrighted both the lyrics and music in 1873.  

If you think “Blessed Assurance” sounds like a health insurance program, you’re right.  There is one by that name, that’s been doing business in Illinois since 1947.  They provide medical (&c.) insurance to missionaries and pastors.

  “THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE” (traditional Negro spiritual)  

“This Little Light of Mine” is a Negro spiritual.  Who wrote the words and music is not known.  It was Zilphia Horton (1910-56), a classical musician turned union organizer, who rescued the song from obscurity while working for the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, and gave the song new, civil rights-oriented lyrics which are for the most part no longer remembered.  (She did the same with other old folk songs, notably “We Shall Overcome,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”)  The original—or presumed to be original—lyrics, which speak of not hiding “the light,” not letting Satan blow it out, and spreading it all over the world, are today considered pretty revolutionary on their own.  

Later, civil-rights activist and sharecropper’s daughter Fannie Lou Hamer (1917-77), a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King, popularized the song as an anthem of the civil-rights movement.  A charismatic personality (one reporter said “she filled a room”), Hamer regularly led demonstrators in singing sprituals on long bus rides and marches to bolster their spirits.  “This Little Light of Mine” was reportedly one of her favorites, and is sometimes considered her “signature” song.  

Kay Mills’ 1993 biography of Fannie Lou Hamer is titled This Little Light of Mine, and features a photograph of Hamer singing on the cover.  

“This Little Light of Mine” has been recorded by a wide variety of artists, including black actor Paul Robeson, the folk band The Seekers, Raffi (as a children’s song), and Bruce Springsteen.

  “HOW GREAT THOU ART” (lyrics 1886, music Swedish traditional)  

“How Great Thou Art” was originally written and published in 1886 as a poem, “O Store Gud” (“O Mighty God”) by Carl Boberg, a Swedish pastor, editor and Member of Parliament.  Boberg reportedly wrote the poem after getting caught in a sudden thunderstorm on the Swedish coast—after which the sun came out, and birds sang.  The text is based on Paslm 145:3 (“Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise”).  Boberg was reportedly surprised years later to hear a church congregation singing the lyrics to the tune of a traditional Swedish song.

The English lyrics we know today are not a direct translation from the Swedish (that was done in 1925 by E. Gustav Johnson of Chicago, and became the hymn “O Mighty God, When I Behold the Wonder”).  “How Great Thou Art” is a 1933 English composition based on a 1927 Russian translation of a 1925 German translation of Boberg’s lyrics; the German version was called “Wie Gross Bist Du,” which translates literally as “How Great Thou Art.”  British missionary Stuart Hine heard the Russian version being sung in eastern Czechoslovakia, and was reportedly inspired to do his version—which is not an exact translation--after being caught in a thunderstorm himself in the Carpathian Mountains.  Hine published “How Great Thou Art” in 1939, but didn’t add the last verse until after World War II.  

Dr. Edwin Orr is considered responsible for introducing “How Great Thou Art” in the United States (he said he heard it being sung in India).  The hymn became popular in America during the Billy Graham crusades of the 1950s.  It’s been the title cut on Gospel albums released by both Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson.

“ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS” (lyrics 1864, music 1871)  

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” is another Methodist hymn.  The lyrics, penned in 1864 by an English minister, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), were originally intended to be sung by a children’s procession.  Baring-Gould originally used a melody from Haydn’s Symphony in D, No. 15, but the song never became popular until Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote new music for it in 1871.   

Rev. Baring-Gould claimed he dashed off the lyrics in 15 minutes, and later gave permission for hymnbook-compilers to make changes to his potentially “faulty” lyrics—but most hymnals still carry Baring-Gould’s lyrics unchanged from the way they were “dashed off” in 1864.  The lyrics echo numerous references in the New Testament to Christians being “solidiers for Christ.”  

Baring-Gould preferred to write standing up.  His custom writing-desk is preserved on his 3,000-acre estate, now a hotel.  He wrote a number of novels, a collection of ghost stories, and a 16-volume Lives of the Saints.  His Book of Were-Wolves is still cited as an expert treatise on lycanthropy, and some of his medieval folklore tales were reportedly the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu stories.  

Sullivan, the son of a bandleader, is best known for the 13 operas he wrote with librettist W.S. Gilbert, but Sullivan wrote the musical scores for 10 other operas, plus 8 ballets, 13 other orchestral works, and a wide range of popular music.  Sullivan tried for most of his life to be a serious musician—one reason he ended the partnership with Gilbert after 1896.  

An attempt in 1986 to remove “Onward, Christian Soldiers” from the Methodist Hymnal because of its “militarism” failed after opposition from churchgoers.  However, it is no longer in the hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

  “AMAZING GRACE” (lyrics 1772, music traditional Scottish)  

“Amazing Grace,” a hymn usually associated with emancipation and the civil-rights movement, was written by a former British slave-trader, John Newton (1725-1807).  Newton claimed he got the inspiration for the song while caught in a storm at sea in 1748; after the helmsman was washed overboard, the 23-year-old Newton, a passenger, took the wheel, calling out for God’s grace—after which, he said, the storm ended.  Newton’s “conversion” didn’t prevent him from going into the slave-trading business in 1750 (“[it’s] profitable,” he said), and it was health, not religion, that made him abandon seafaring in 1754.  He became an Anglican minister in 1764.  

Newton penned the initial six verses of “Amazing Grace” in 1772 for a New Year’s sermon.  He and William Cowper published the lyrics in Olney Hymns in 1779.  Like most 18th-century hymnals, there was no music—congregations customarily sang hymns to the tune of popular songs.  The melody most often associated with “Amazing Grace” is “New Britain,” a reportedly Scottish tune whose author is unknown.  The “New Britain” music is easy to play on bagpipes, which made “Amazing Grace” a popular bagpipe tune—but not until the 1960s.  

The song acquired 11 more verses over time, in what chroniclers called “the folk process” (meaning it’s unknown how they got there).  It is rare that all 17 verses are sung.  The famous “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…” verse, which is usually sung, was not written by Newton; it first showed up in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (where the song was being sung by slaves), and has been attributed to John Rees (1828-1900).   

“Amazing Grace” has been translated into numerous languages.  The most famous translation is the Cherokee one, which dates from the 1838 “Trail of Tears” migration of the Cherokees to Western reservations—a trek on which thousands died.  Unable to give fallen tribesmen a proper burial, the Indians contented themselves with singing “Amazing Grace”—in Cherokee—over the bodies.  The song is considered an unofficial Cherokee national anthem.  

“New Britain” isn’t the only tune the hymn has been sung to; the lyrics are adaptable to any 8-bar-followed-by-6-bar melody, which has led to “Amazing Grace” being sung to such diverse tunes as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and the theme songs from Gilligan’s Island and The Mickey Mouse Club.  The pairing of the lyrics with the melody from “House of the Rising Sun” was first done by the Blind Boys of Alabama, a black Gospel singing group formed in 1939 (and still touring today), and is now considered one of the “standard” arrangements of the hymn.