On an early Sunday morning in 1935, as a five-year old, I stood at the edge of Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove, Florida, and watched my mother and father wade into the water for baptism.  Ten others and the pastor went with them. The sky was blue, the water clear as glass, birds were singing in the palms, and as they entered the bay, the congregation lined the edge and sang

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye,

To Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie.

I am bound for the Promised Land!  I am bound for the Promised Land!

O, who will come and go with me?,  I am bound for the Promised Land!

In that awesome moment everyone felt as if they were standing with Joshua on the banks of the Jordan and seeing the land of promise rise before them. Though I did not yet “know the Lord,” I Samuel 3:7, an impression was made on my five-year old mind that time cannot erase. I will never forget that song or that day. 

Our church, “Little Flock,” was a Primitive Baptist congregation trying desperately to hold to a 17th century identify and practice. Many of the sermons were chanted and in my case quickly forgotten. What I will never forget are the songs–all of which were sung a’cappella–and many in minor key.  Instrumental music was forbidden at Little Flock. Even though I heard hours of preaching, I realize now that I learned more gospel from the hymn book than I did from the pulpit. That is not a criticism of the pastors. They were godly men. But my father and mother sang hymns every day. Their worship was a routine part of our life. I quickly learned the words and joined in the worship.

My dad was a World War I veteran with an unhealed injury.  Though pain was his constant companion it could not diminish his faith in the Lord. Sometimes at night when everyone was in bed he would suddenly burst into singing in the dark. I especially remember one night when his voice rang loudly through the house:  “This truth like its Author/Eternal shall stand/Though all things in nature decay/Upheld by Jehovah’s  omnipotent hand/The righteous shall hold on his way!” Job 17:9. Not only did I see my dad’s faith “holding on his way” but I was systematically taught Kingdom truth by his singing.

In the mid-1930's the “Great Depression” brought  famine to the land--America was wounded and on its knees. In many cities bread lines were long, families were separated while men were away looking for work. In spite of that, every denomination sang the same hymns and helped  keep the nation spiritually alive. Together, we declared “On Christ the solid rock I stand! All other ground is sinking sand!” This truth fed our hearts when there was little food on the table. Clothes were old and ragged but the hymns assured us we were “Robed in His righteousness alone/Faultless to stand before the Throne.” When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and we were thrust into battle, churches everywhere sang “From wars alarms, from deadly pestilence/Be thy strong arm our ever sure defense!” In Europe and the Pacific, while men were fighting on the battle field, holy singing defended the home-front.

Little Flock had no Sunday School so I was doubly-dependent on the hymnal for my learning. It became my catechism. Looking back, I realize now that many of history’s greatest Christian writers were pouring their best into me. Through them I was instructed in an academy of Bible topics.  In May, 1948, at the close of the Sunday morning service at another Primitive Baptist Church the congregation began to sing,

Come!, ye sinners, poor and needy! Weak and wounded, sick and sore,

Jesus ready stands to save you, Full of pity, love and power ...

Let not conscience make you linger, Nor of fitness fondly dream,

All the fitness He requireth, Is to feel your need of Him ...

The Holy Spirit suddenly exploded in me like a bomb.  I gripped the pew in front of me and held on. My body began vibrating. The song thoroughly exposed my heart. Then came the next lines:

Come, ye weary, heavy laden,  Lost and ruined by the fall;

If you tarry till you’re better,  You will never come at all.

Let not conscience make you linger, Not of fitness fondly dream;

All the fitness He requireth,  Is to feel your need of Him.

I felt tremendous need of Him–loved Him, wanted Him–but the greatest battle of my life was taking  place in my soul.  These words quickly followed:

I will arise and go to Jesus!, He will embrace me in His arms,

In the arms of my dear Savior,

O there are ten thousand charms.

I will arise and go to Jesus ...

Shoving my brother aside I charged into the aisle and ran to the parking lot.  It was there–not at the altar–that I was saved. Suddenly–unexpectedly–I was born-again.  The refrain,  “I will arise and go to Jesus”, made me realize that “all the fitness He required was to feel my need of Him.” For the first time I felt that need in a crushing way. That night I returned to the church and was baptized. I am uncertain but the congregation probably sang, “O who will come and go with me?, I am bound for the Promised Land ...”  This I know: When I rose from the Jordan all I saw before me were, “Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood stand dressed in living green,/As to the Jews old Canaan stood, While Jordan rolled between.”

From then on, I was a believing disciple of Jesus. The Holy Spirit moved quickly in my life and in less than a year I had a day-time vision in which I saw myself preaching.  That was my “call” to the ministry.  In another year I moved to Atlanta and began my full-time ministry.  Even then, while preaching I found tremendous support in the hymnal. One of the songs we frequently sang just before the sermon was this one.  Observe, it was not just a song; it was a declaration:

Brethren, we have met to worship, And adore the Lord our God,

Will you pray with all your power, While we try to preach the Word?

All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down,

Let us pray that holy manna may be scattered all around ...

Those words, “all is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down” burned deeply into my heart.  As a result, that “scattering of holy manna” began happening in meetings where I preached. In the 1950's in hot, non-air-conditioned, crowded summer  revivals, we experienced invasions of the Holy Spirit. I saw it happen. “Holy manna” rained down on us. Weeping, shouting, believers hugging each other across the pews, others running forward in repentance, some dropping on their knees, would sometimes seize the congregation. These people were hard-line, old-time Baptists who discouraged emotion and religious display. But it happened anyway.  I will never forget a dear, elderly woman on the front row whose arms suddenly shot up, the hymnal went flying to the ceiling, she fell back on the pew clapping her hands, shouting, and kicking her feet.  The sermon had been anointed but it was the hymn that  suddenly escorted her into the presence of God.

Knowing the power hidden in those old songs, when I hear people today speak unappreciatively of them, I say, “If you only knew!  If you only knew!” It was such songs that inspired revivals and sent missionaries around the world. The Welsh Revival of the early 1900's was characterized more by congregational singing than by preaching. In many services there were no sermons. One of the great martyrs of medieval Europe who was burned alive at the stake was still singing a hymn when the roar of fire drowned out his voice. His last words were, “This soul of mine in flames of fire, O Christ I offer Thee!”

Here are a few examples of hymns that impacted and changed my life:

1. “How Firm A Foundation” taught me to trust God in every circumstance. Each stanza is adapted from the book of Isaiah:

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,

Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!

What more can He say than to you He hath said,

You, who to Jesus for refuge have fled? 

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,

For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;

I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand,

Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,

The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;

For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,

And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,

My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;

The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design,

Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,

I will not, I will not desert to its foes;

That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,

I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!

2.  This hymn taught me about the power and glory of Jesus’ blood:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;

And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains

The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;

And there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins away ...

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power

‘Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more ...

Then in a nobler, sweeter song I’ll sing Thy power to save

When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave  ...

3.  Here, angels and I sang together at the crowning of Jesus.

All hail the power of Jesus Name!

Let angels prostrate fall;

Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown Him Lord of all.

Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race, Ye ransomed from the fall,

Hail Him Who saves you by His grace,

and crown Him Lord of all.

Sinners, whose love cannot forget the wormwood and the gall,

Go spread your trophies at His feet,

and crown Him Lord of all.

4.  This hymn taught me about Spiritual Warfare:

Am I a soldier of the Cross, A follower of the Lamb?,

And shall I fear to own His cause,

Or blush to speak His name?

Must I be carried to the skies, On flowery beds of ease

While others fought to win the prize,

And sailed through bloody seas?

Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood;

Is this vile world a friend to grace, To help me on to God?

No!  I must fight if I would reign,  Increase my courage Lord!

I’ll stand the test, endure the pain, Supported by Thy word.

Thy saints in all this glorious war,

Shall conquer though they die,

They see the triumph from afar,  And seize it with their eye!

When that illustrious day shall rise,

And all Thine armies shine,

In robes of victory through the skies,

The Glory shall be Thine!

5.  These words taught me there was freedom in sanctification:

Let worldly minds the world pursue,  It has no charms for me,

Once I admired its trifles too,  But grace has set me free.

Its pleasures now no longer please,  No more content afford,

Far from my heart be toys like these,

Since I have known the Lord ...

6. Through repentance, I sought a deeper relationship with the Lord:

O for a closer walk with God! A calm and heavenly frame,

A light to shine upon the road, That leads me to the Lamb.

Where is the blessedness I knew, When first I saw the Lord,

Where is the soul-refreshing view, Of Jesus and His word?

Return, O holy dove return, Sweet messenger of rest,

I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,

And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known, What ‘ere that idol be,

Help me to tear it from thy throne, And worship only thee ...

7.  I recognized my need for genuine faith:

O for a faith that will not shrink, Though pressed by every foe,

That will not tremble on the brink,  Of any earthly foe.

A faith that shines more bright and clear,

When tempests rage without,

That when in danger knows no fear,

In darkness feels no doubt!

8.  I learned that Christ had vanquished Babylon and  I was free!

Hail the day so long expected, Hail the year of full release!

Zion's walls are now erected,

And her watchmen publish peace.

Through our Shiloh's wide dominion,

Hear the trumpet loudly roar,

Babylon is fallen, is fallen, fallen, fallen,

Babylon is fallen, to rise no more!

Blow the trumpet in Mount Zion,

Christ shall come a second time;

Ruling with a rod of iron,  All who now as foes combine.

Babel's garments we've rejected,  And our fellowship is o'er,

Babylon is fallen, fallen, fallen,

Babylon is fallen, to rise no more!

9.  I sang about Jesus’ baptism.

Down to the sacred wave, The Lord of life was led;

And He Who came our souls to save,

In Jordan bowed His head.

Blest Savior, we descend, In Thy appointed way;

Let glory o’er these scenes be shed, As we baptize today.

Please know, while I love the hymns I am not married to the past and unappreciative of modern choruses.  Not at all!  I simply want worship that accepts the best of both eras–the old and the new. What I am longing for is the scene of worship where entire congregations fall into  deep, deep encounters with God.  Like priests at the dedication of Solomon's Temple, I want worship that deepens to the point of a holy murmur.  High praise is wonderful but it must give way to the depths of whispered reverence. We need to be prostrate on the floor with a Glory Cloud filling the building. Voices should drop to the level of a holy sigh as we leave the Outer Court of the Tabernacle, slide under the veil, and rise up in the Shekinah Glory of the Holy of Holies.  I long for that kind of worship!.

The nearest to Heaven-on-earth I've ever been was once in Sierra Leon, West Africa, when the worship became an uninterrupted, angelic-like chorus of tongues.  No instruments were used and voices rose and fell, wave-like, as worshipers sang in the Spirit. I Corinthians 14:15. More than 17 different tribal languages were present in that huge auditorium but they all disappeared as “tongues of men and angels” transformed everyone’s voice into one, spiritual song of the Lord.  I Corinthians 13:1. Never before and never since, have I experienced reverence and adoration of God so real, so magnificent!  Suddenly, it lifted the congregation above earth’s noise and clamor into the glory of Heaven. Beyond our singing was a seraphic overture. That day–for the first time–I think  I experienced what Isaac Watts wrote in a hymn in the 1700's. He said:

“There shall I bathe my weary soul in seas of heavenly rest

And not a wave of trouble roll across my peaceful breast.”

I am forever indebted to the hymns! 

Finally, I want to share a bit of history that happened before my birth. In 1853 Japan was a closed nation, no foreigner was allowed in, no Japanese was allowed out. There was no public school system, no development of natural resources and Japan looked only to its past. That year the U.S. invaded Japan with a fleet of Gun Boats under the leadership of Commodore Perry.  They  sailed almost dockside into Tokyo Harbor. The Japanese huddled in fear, awaiting the attack. Promptly at two o’clock Sunday afternoon the bombardment began. The Marine Brass Band loudly played “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.” This was followed by the booming voices of military men singing “Nearer My God to Thee,” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and finally climaxed with the “Star Spangled Banner.” By the end of the concert, Tokyo harbor was lined with mobs of astonished Japanese whose hearts had been won by hymns and patriotic songs. Our Government unashamedly presented the message of Jesus Christ. Is there power in the hymns?  Yes!  Much more than we will ever understand.