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Rapturous visions—or not spacer Rapturous visions—or not
BY: Denis Haack
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A while back the hymn, “Blessed Assurance” was in the service of morning worship in our church. That hymn is always a problem for me.

In evangelical Protestant circles “Blessed Assurance” is well known, and well loved. In 2013, a nationwide survey was taken in Great Britain in which they asked people to rate their favorite hymns—the BBC reports that “Blessed Assurance” placed #32 in the top 100 favorite hymns that year. Hymnary.org reports that as of June 2014, “Blessed Assurance” is one of the most widely published hymns, being included in 845 hymnals available in the marketplace. And though this is far from being statistically relevant, my memory suggests that people often request “Blessed Assurance” during church sing-alongs, though I admit that my distaste for the hymn might skew my perception a bit. On second thought, I don’t dislike it, exactly. I just can’t relate to it.

Actually, that’s not entirely true, either. Like many of Fanny Crosby’s hymns, “Blessed Assurance” is not particularly good poetry. Theodore Cuyler, a Presbyterian minister who knew Crosby mentioned her in his autobiography, Recollections of a Long Life (1902). “The venerable and devout blind songstress, Fanny Crosby,” he wrote, “has produced very many hundreds of [hymns]—none of very high poetic merit, but many of them of such rich spiritual savour [sic], and set to such stirring airs, that they are sung by millions around the globe.” I am aware of the danger of being a snob here, so that worship becomes acceptable only when performed by professionals. Christians should not be aesthetes. On the other hand, to suggest that the quality of the poetry in our worship doesn’t matter at all is to slide close to the error of separating standards of excellence from what we offer to God.

There have been hymn writers who have also been good poets. The one who comes most readily to my mind is William Cowper (1731-1800). The Rev. Kevin Twit, who began and leads Indelible Grace Music (http://www.igracemusic.com), assesses things this way:

Cowper is one of only two truly great poets who is also a great hymn writer (the other being James Montgomery.) A good hymn (as Montgomery contends) must be immediately understandable and accessible the first time you sing it, without opaque images, but yet repay repeated singings with fresh discoveries of its depth. Perhaps Cowper can do this where other fine poets fail because he believed that poetry should be a kind of heightened normal speech—in fact he led a movement against the florid language of the poets of his day and believed that poetry was the original pre-fall speech of man. Thus when you speak in poetry you are connecting in an intuitive way with our deep humanity.

By the way, I believe there is a place for bad poetry. When my grandchildren write a poem I laud it loudly and read it aloud to friends. There is also a place in the church’s corporate worship for poetry that represents our best even if our best isn’t very good. So, I want to be sensitive to that. Still, good poetry is a very rich gift, an art form that appears repeatedly throughout the Scriptures, and poetic expression is able to enhance and deepen language simultaneously. So since there are plenty of hymns to choose from, and since her poetry isn’t very good, I find that a distraction whenever I am asked to sing one of Crosby’s hymns.

Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) was a remarkable person. Though blind from infancy, she was intelligent, gifted, purposeful, active, and deeply devoted to her Christian faith.

Her work habits harked back many years and always began with prayer. Sometimes words came quickly to her in a form that satisfied her; at other times, getting them just right required effort. She liked to think through difficult texts (often “difficult” because a tune demanded an awkward meter) at night when Manhattan was quiet and she could sit undisturbed. Oddly enough she felt most comfortable holding a small notebook in her hand, although she never wrote down her own texts. (Despite her education, her handwriting was barely legible, and on legal documents she signed her name with an X witnessed by friends.) And so she composed text and filed it away in what she termed “the library” of her mind until someone came by to take her dictation. She edited her poems in her mind, too, working on some for several days before she dictated anything. Crosby envisioned her mind as a library, and she trained herself to wander amongits shelves and recall stored information at will. When an affable scribe appeared, she was likely to dictate several poems at once, sometimes as many as seven a day. The manuscripts of her dictated poems show that she occasionally edited as she dictated.

Sometimes Crosby would dictate two poems simultaneously, to two transcribers. She didn’t just write hymns, but composed patriotic songs as well. In one song composed during the Civil War, Crosby cheered on the Union soldiers in the fight against the Confederate forces:

Death to those whose impious hands
Burst our Union’s sacred bands,
Vengeance thunders, right demands—
Justice for the brave.


Crosby also composed a rather impertinent piece addressed to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States:

Now, Jeff, when thou art ready,
Lead on thy rebel crew,
We’ll give them all a welcome—
With balls and powder too!
We spurn thy constitution!
We spurn thy southern laws!
Our stars and stripes are waving,
And Heav'n will speed our cause.


Whatever her faith in the Union cause, however, it is clear from her poetry and life that what primarily animated Fanny Crosby was her faith in the gospel. Convinced of its truth and its power to change lives, she devoted herself over a lifetime of activity in the revivals of D. L. Moody, the work of rescue missions and the growing Sunday school movement. She must have been a fascinating person to know.

Still, the main difficulty I have with “Blessed Assurance” is not the quality of the poetry but that I simply can’t relate to the lyrics. The first verse begins by celebrating some of the spiritual blessings God grants us in Christ by his grace.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
Oh what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.


Each line is essentially a popular 19th century expression of some biblical truth. Fanny Crosby was very good at putting phrases in her lyrics that resonated in the hearts and imaginations of the evangelical Christians who sang her hymns, phrases that were often heard in sermons and read in devotionals and which captured some kernel of biblical truth. Each phrase in this first verse could have a proof text associated with it: Hebrews 10:22, Colossians 1:27, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Galatians 4:7, 1 Corinthians 6:20, John 3:8, Revelation 7:14. “Blessed Assurance” does not prompt thoughtful theological reflection like the lyrics of “A Mighty Fortress” tends to do. Instead, it compiles a series of phrases that are well known by Crosby’s intended audience and are designed to prompt a sense of togetherness and celebration.

The chorus is simple, catchy, and perfect for group singing:
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.


This is another gift that Fanny Crosby demonstrated in her composing, namely the ability to compose hymns that congregations and groups at rallies and revivals simply loved to sing.

My difficulty with “Blessed Assurance” comes in the next verse:
Perfect submission, perfect delight,
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Savior all the day long.


In church, when we got to the chorus after this verse, I did what I always do: I inserted a few words to keep from saying something that is simply untrue: “This is not my story, I can’t sing this song.” It was under my breath, not disruptive, but I simply can’t sing those lines.

It is easy for me to become cynical here. You really experience perfect submission? Really, perfect? You find that rapturous visions burst on your sight now that you’re a Christian, or maybe just sometimes—anytime? You can tell me that angels bring you whispered messages from heaven? Can anyone claim that this is really their experience of the Christian life? Or even close to it? Singing this hymn strikes me as a group exercise in proclaiming a lie. (OK, the cynical rant ends here.)

As in so many of her lyrics, Fanny Crosby reflected the popular evangelical Christianity of her day, which is to say a faith that had been shaped to a large extent by the intersection of three recent streams of theology: revivalism, the holiness movement, and pietism. Revivalism is the mindset that flowed out of the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century in America. Evangelists like Charles Finney came to believe they could lead people to decide for Jesus by urging them to believe what they saw as the essential core of the gospel—you are a sinner, Jesus died for you, if you believe you’ll be forgiven. Everything else was secondary. The holiness movement grew out of a concern that many lay Christians were living lax lives, morally. So an emphasis on personal holiness was stressed, leading among other things to John Wesley’s (1703-1791) teaching that committed Christians could reach a state of perfection. And pietism was a movement that originated among German Lutherans in the mid-18th century that sought to awaken lay believers from nominal belief to a warmly devotional personal relationship with God.

All three streams were used of God, and each grasped an aspect of the gospel. Revivalism sought to make the gospel understandable to non-Christians, the holiness movement recognized that personal holiness is important because our Father is holy, and pietism saw that faith in Christ should be more than cool mental assent. On the other hand, all three tended to concentrate on only one aspect of the faith and so quickly led to distortions of biblical truth. Revivalism reduced the rich story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration to a formula repeated without regard to the person hearing it in an attempt to provoke a decision. The holiness movement could not do away with sin and soon legalisms proliferated to identify behaviors that were deemed unworthy of a spiritual person. And pietism soon established emotional markers and daily disciplines that became standard for measuring the presence and depth of true faith. All three streams—and their distortions—continues to shape the faith of most evangelical Christians, and account for much of the lack of reality and authenticity that plagues Protestantism today.

In any case, reread verse two of “Blessed Assurance” and you’ll easily notice the influence of all three movements in Fanny Crosby’s lyrics.

There is one more thing worth noticing here. As her biographer notes, Fanny Crosby’s contemporaries appreciated and embraced her hymns for what they were.

No one made a serious case for Crosby lyrics as “serious” hymns. Rather, her lyrics were “singable,” “catchy in the best sense of the word,” and their resonance with grassroots realities assured that they would be remembered and sung long after “more ambitious poems” had been forgotten. Her contemporaries did not expect to find her lines in books printed without notes and designed for devotional reading; few, they admitted, “will achieve poetic immortality.” Instead, her words were emphatically for singing, and the simplicity, sentiment, “galloping,” and repetitiveness that critics found offensive were the precise elements that charmed the masses. Since tunesmiths often approached Crosby for text for their new tunes, her options were limited by the wishes of the tune writer as well as by the occasions for which the text and tune were solicited. Her modest and limited education—begun formally when she was already fifteen—lacked the breadth and depth that breathed from the eighteenth-century hymn texts she loved. Literary critics and theologians might bestow careful analyses on the Wesleys or Watts but would find little to occupy them in the hymns of Fanny Crosby. While her lines revealed her beliefs, they made no claim to be (in John Wesley's famous words) “a little body of practical and experimental divinity.” Rather, they were emblems of faith. In an era of mounting intellectual challenge to traditional Christianity, Crosby’s words mirrored the views of a large percentage of rank-and-file evangelical Protestants who either failed to grasp the implications of modern thought or discounted its relevance to evangelical faith.

This sad blindness to culture and the world we are to love for the sake of the gospel still infects the evangelical world, and its hymnody.

Still, as I’ve already mentioned, my reaction, above, to verse two is very cynical—and that is neither good nor sufficient. I need to be careful here and not make the mistake of assuming my experience of things is normative. So, let me admit that what she expressed in verse two of “Blessed Assurance” apparently was Fanny Crosby’s actual experience—and perhaps it is yours, too. Perhaps you do experience rapturous visions and angelic whispers. I will assume Fanny Crosby did—which means she was waxing poetic here but not lapsing into some sort of romanticism or sentimentalism, but trying to express her experience of faith with a measure of realism. It’s not my experience, but it was hers.

Now, assuming that, the point I would want to make here is that even if this is an accurate reflection of Crosby’s daily spiritual experience, it too must not be assumed to be normative. Some of us—perhaps many of us—have never experienced anything like it. Some of us have even thought about it and would prefer to never experience anything much like it. And more important, none of it is taught in Scripture as being normative for the believer’s experience for life in a fallen world.

Consider, for example, what we know about Daniel’s experience. In 605 BC, after a siege the Israelite capital of Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian army. The Babylonian king ransacked the Temple, taking vessels used in worship and carting them back to be placed in the temple of his god. He also ordered his chief eunuch to choose the best and brightest among the young people of the land and to bring them to Babylon to enter his service. Most Christians are so familiar with this story, and the details are reported in Scripture with such sparse detail that it’s easy to forget what it must have been like. Since we aren’t given details we must be careful not to assume too much, but the facts we are given suggest it was far from a pleasant experience. A siege, the fall of a city in warfare, being chosen as a slave, being taken to a foreign land across many miles of forced marches—and given the length of Daniel’s life all this must have happened when he was in his early teens. The degree of trauma, horror and pain must have been amazing. Once in Babylon the exiles were expected to be absorbed into Babylonian life and culture, given Babylonian names and a Babylonian education. After three years Daniel was examined and accepted into the king’s service. Although it is not mentioned in Scripture, we can assume that this means he was made a eunuch, a crude operation in that day that killed a significant number of the males that were castrated. Daniel had visions, which bring us to Crosby’s lyrics, but they could hardly be termed rapturous. Once he was “severely distressed for a while… terrified,” another time his “spirit was troubled… terrified,” another time he was “frightened” and fell on the ground, another time he “was overcome and lay sick for some days,” another time his “complexion grew deathly pale,” he became speechless and “retained no strength.” Although he received angelic messages, all of the experiences are described in terms of fearfulness rather than lightness of heart. Daniel was also the brunt of jealousy among his colleagues in the king’s court, and they conspired to bring him down. Even after many years of faithful service he was known as a foreigner in the Babylonian court. And though the pictures we colored in Sunday school showed smiling, cuddly lions in the den, the reality was horrific—the famished beasts ripped the bodies of the families of his accusers apart before they hit the floor of the den the next day. Daniel was also a grateful man, acknowledging God’s grace, and exhibiting a steady faithfulness that could only have been rooted in the truth of God’s word as opposed to the myths and gods and goddesses of the pagan world. But does “Blessed Assurance” capture the reality of his experience of faith? If anything it’s a study in opposites.

I’m not writing this in an attempt to get people to stop singing “Blessed Assurance.” My friend Kenny Hutson included the hymn on his album, Foundation and Fortress: A Collection of Instrumental Hymns (2011). I have Foundation and Fortress in a playlist I call “Solace” and find the collection a lovely balm to my soul on days when the darkness seems to press in too closely.

“Love for God,” John Stott says, “is not an emotional experience so much as a moral commitment.” That is not to say a believer will not at times be filled or even overwhelmed by emotion—we may be. It is beauty in art, creation and finely crafted prose that evokes deep emotion in me, and are the spiritual experiences I cherish most.

So, if the lyrics of “Blessed Assurance” describe your experience, celebrate it, but be careful when you do not to make it seem like it’s the experience of all believers—that’s the sort of inauthenticity that causes so many believers to be alienated from the church and so many unbelievers to be alienated from the claims of the gospel. And I need to celebrate my very different experience, and not make it seem normative, either.

By the way, the hymn that most deeply expresses the reality of my heart and experience is not “Blessed Assurance” but “None Other Lamb,” by Christina Rossetti.

None other Lamb, none other Name,
None other hope in Heav’n or earth or sea,
None other hiding place from guilt and shame,
None beside Thee!

My faith burns low, my hope burns low;
Only my heart’s desire cries out in me
By the deep thunder of its want and woe,
Cries out to Thee.

Lord, Thou art Life, though I be dead;
Love’s fire Thou art, however cold I be:
Nor Heav’n have I, nor place to lay my head,
Nor home, but Thee.


image

Questions:
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Source:
Sources: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3DnJQz7zsF1JrB3rZ8yQ86w/the-uks-top-100-hymns; http://www.hymnary.org/text/blessed_assurance_jesus_is_mine. Cuyler and biographical information from Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby by Edith Blumhofer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 2005) p. 200-201, 334; Kevin Twit from “History of Hymnody Syllabus,” for a class by Rev. Twit at Covenant Theological Seminary (Spring 2010) p. 43; Stott in The Epistles of John: An Introduction and Commentary by J. R. W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1964) p. 173. For further reading: “None Other Lamb, None Other Name: In a Broken World, a Quiet Confidence” available on Ransom’s web site: (http://www.ransomfellowship.org/articledetail.asp?AID=571&B=Denis%20Haack&TID=4)
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about the author
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Denis Haack
Denis is the author of The Rest of Success: What the World Didn’t Tell You About Having It All and has written articles for such journals as Reformation & Revival Journal, Eternity, Covenant, and World. He holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis.
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