by Al Maxey

Issue #504 ------- September 27, 2011
Blues are the songs of despair, but
gospel songs are the songs of hope.

Mahalia Jackson {1911-1972}

Sarah Fuller Flower Adams
Beautiful Poetess - Beloved Hymn

It is quite likely that you have never heard this woman's name before. However, it is almost certain you know quite well the hymn that she wrote. It "is generally considered by students of hymnology to be the finest hymn ever written by any woman hymnwriter" [Kenneth Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 169]. This beautiful, extremely gifted, godly, and rather frail young lady, who died at the age of only 43, was the poetess who penned the words to that immortal hymn "Nearer, My God, To Thee." I believe that you'll find the history of this young woman, as well as the history of the hymn and the composer of its musical score (Lowell Mason), to be quite interesting and inspiring! Knowing something about the songs and hymns we sing, as well as the persons and circumstances that produced them, tend to make them much more meaningful.

Sarah Fuller Flower was born at High Street, in Old Harlow, Essex, England on February 22, 1805. She was the youngest of only two children (both daughters) born to Benjamin Flower and his wife (who died in 1810, leaving the father to raise his two young daughters all alone). Benjamin Flower was a printer by trade, but later became the owner and editor of the radical weekly paper The Cambridge Intelligencer, which advocated some rather liberal ideas for that day, and which openly and boldly criticized the government and its leaders. He was imprisoned for six months in Newgate by the House of Lords for his harsh criticism of the Bishop of Llandaff. Though not very popular with the ruling class, Benjamin Flower, and his daughters, had some fairly influential friends among the intelligentsia, including Robert Browning (1812-1884), the well-known British poet and playwright, who became close friends with Sarah, even regarding her as his personal confidanté, with whom he would "anxiously discuss religious doubts and difficulties." Benjamin died in 1829. Sarah's older sister was Eliza Flower, a gifted musician and composer.

In the year 1820, Benjamin Flower relocated his family to the rural area of Dalston, London. Here, Sarah began to develop her skills as a writer, and from 1832-35 she was one of the major contributing writers for The Monthly Repository, along with such notables as her friend Robert Browning and John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher and economist. "It has been told that she wrote very quickly, as if she were under some sort of compulsion, and that editors seldom found anything that needed change or correction in her work." Although a very skilled writer, and good thinker, her passion was for poetry! On September 24, 1834 she married John Brydges Adams (some sources give his name as William Bridges Adams), whom she first met at the home of a woman who would later become the wife of John Stuart Mill. Her husband was a fairly prominent inventor and civil engineer, and this new couple made their home together in the city of London, where Sarah would live for the remainder of her life. Sarah was soon to become "the toast of the town," and it was reported that her "talent, beauty, charm and exalted character always made a deep impression upon all who knew her" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 170]. Note: the picture that appears at the beginning of this issue of Reflections is from a sketch done of Sarah by Margaret Gillies in 1834.

"After her marriage, with the hearty sympathy and concurrence of her husband, she sought to carry out her youthful ambition of adopting the stage as a profession. She entertained the idea that the life of an actress, a life devoted to the constant expression of the highest poetry, ought to be really -- as it was theoretically -- a life in unison with the high thoughts to which she has habitually to give utterance. 'The drama,' Sarah Adams writes in one of her notebooks, 'is an epitome of the mind and manners of mankind, and wise men in all ages have agreed to make it, what in truth it ought to be, a supplement to the pulpit'" [Alfred H. Miles, The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century, published in 1907]. One of the highlights of Sarah's acting career was when she played Lady Macbeth at the Richmond Theater in London in 1837. Her performance was so memorable that the Court Journal wrote a rather lengthy article in praise of her ability, saying, "The performance was strongly marked by original conception and dramatic power." Sarah went on to perform in a number of musical plays as well, which she especially enjoyed. Alfred H. Miles, in his biographical essay of her, observed, "Mrs. Adams possessed a rich, mellow, contralto voice, and from girlhood she had been in the habit of studying songs in which she could unite dramatic action and costume."

Tragically, at the height of her stage career, "her health gave way ... and she found herself physically incapable of sustaining the strain of public performances" [ibid]. Therefore, Sarah decided to devote herself once again to her writing. In the year 1841 she published perhaps her best literary work, a dramatic poem titled "Vivia Perpetua," which dealt with the conflict between Christians and pagans in the early church; a poem in which the chief character suffers martyrdom. One reviewer of this work (a Dr. Garnett) stated that it was "an idealized representation of the authoress's mind and heart. In the character of Vivia she has shadowed forth her own moral affections and intellectual convictions, and the intensity of her feelings frequently exalts her diction into genuine eloquence." In 1845 she produced a catechism and collection of hymns for children titled "The Flock at the Fountain."

It was during this very same period of time, however, that Sarah wrote what would later become her most famous piece of work -- the poem "Nearer, My God, To Thee." Sarah and her sister, Eliza, were both members of the Unitarian Church, and were active at the South Place Chapel in London, where William Johnson Fox was the pastor. Indeed, Eliza was one of the music directors at this chapel. The two sisters were also key contributors to a new hymn book that was being put together by Fox, and which was published in 1841. It was titled "Hymns and Anthems." Sarah wrote the words to 13 of the hymns, and Eliza composed 62 of the tunes. Not too long before the publication of this popular hymnal, the pastor commented to the sisters that "he wished he could find a hymn to conclude a sermon he was preparing on the account of Jacob and Esau as recorded in Genesis 28:10-22. Sister Eliza interrupted enthusiastically, 'Sarah, now there's an excellent idea for a new hymn for our hymnal. Why don't you write your own hymn about Jacob's dream?' 'Splendid!' replied the pleased pastor. Later that day, after spending much time in studying the Genesis account, absorbing the atmosphere and feeling the dramatic movement of this Old Testament narrative, Sarah began to write. Soon she had versified the complete biblical story in these five stanzas still in use today" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 170]. This new hymn was put to music by Sarah's sister, Eliza, and it was then sung for the very first time following Fox's sermon the very next Sunday. It was also included in his new hymnal, which came out in 1841. It was introduced in America three years later in 1844. This hymn didn't really become popular here in America, however, until some twelve years later when it was finally joined to the tune "Bethany" (the tune by which it's best known today) written by Lowell Mason in 1856. The hymn has been connected with a number of tunes over the years, including "Horbury" by John Bacchus Dykes (the tune most familiar in the United Kingdom), and "Propior Deo" (which is preferred by the Methodists) by Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame).

As was just noted, the music by which this timeless, beloved hymn is best known to us here in America (as well as in most of the rest of the world) was composed by Lowell Mason. It is the tune known as "Bethany," written specifically for this poem by Mason in the year 1856. Lowell Mason, often referred to as the "Father" of American church and school music, and the composer of over 1600 hymn tunes, was born on January 8, 1792 in Medfield, Massachusetts. When he reached adulthood, he became the Music Director at First Parish Church (known today as First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church). A few of his tunes include: "Mary Had A Little Lamb" ... his arrangement of "Joy To The World" ... "God Is The Fountain Whence" ... "Praise The Lord" ... "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" ... "There Is A Fountain" ... "Lord, We Come Before Thee Now" ... "My Faith Looks Up To Thee" ... "I'm Not Ashamed To Own My Lord" ... "Watchman, Tell Us Of The Night" ... "Blest Be The Tie That Binds" ... and countless others.

Lowell Mason almost single-handedly introduced music into the public schools of our nation, and therefore he's considered by most historians of public education to be the first really important music educator in this nation's history. Mason was also extremely active in seeking to redirect the musical expression of America's churches. He actively sought to rid the churches of choirs and professional musicians, and instead return the churches to congregational singing (with the only instrumental accompaniment being either an organ or piano). His vision caught on (though more slowly in some denominations than in others) and his influence is felt to this very day throughout most of Christendom, especially in America. Mason is also credited with having started the very first Sunday School for black children in America. Although Lowell Mason began his spiritual journey within the Unitarian Church, he soon left that group, and most of the rest of his life would be spent within the Presbyterian Church. He died on August 11, 1872.

As is very often true of many great hymns (such as "Amazing Grace" by John Newton -- see: Reflections #265), there are some very interesting historical accounts associated with this hymn by Sarah Adams and Lowell Mason. "Nearer, My God, To Thee" was sung by many of the passengers and crew of the SS Valencia as it sank off the coast of Canada in 1905. Far better known, however, is the report that this hymn was the one being played by the band (which consisted of just eight musicians) aboard the RMS Titanic as it sank in the frigid waters of the Atlantic on April 14, 1912, taking some 1500 souls with her. Wallace Hartley, who was the band leader on the Titanic, was known to have loved this hymn, and he had even requested some time previous to this voyage that it be played at his funeral. It is said that in September, 1901, "our own martyred President, William McKinley, was heard to whisper its words as he drew his last breath" [Osbeck, p. 171]. It was his favorite hymn. At 3:30 p.m., on September 14, 1901, after five minutes of silence that was observed across our nation, bands throughout the United States played "Nearer, My God, To Thee." It was also played at a memorial service for McKinley that was held in Westminster Abbey in London, England. It was played at the funerals of two other U.S. Presidents as well: James Garfield and Gerald Ford.

Sarah's older sister, Eliza, came down with tuberculosis and died in December of 1846. While caring for her older sister, Sarah also contracted the disease and died less than two years later (August 14, 1848). She was only 43. Although Sarah spent most of her life with the Universalist Church, "there is evidence from some of Sarah Adam's last writings that shortly before the close of her life, she had a conversion experience and became associated with a congregation of Baptist believers in London" [Osbeck, p. 170]. This dear disciple's hymn, "Nearer, My God, To Thee," is truly one of the most beloved hymns in the church today, and it appears in virtually every song book regardless of denomination. It's also been translated and sung in dozens of languages around the world! The beautiful poetess who penned its inspiring words has given us a great gift, one that will live on for centuries to come, for "it expresses so aptly the common yearning in the hearts of men to know God and to experience His nearness" [ibid, p. 171].

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Bro. Al, When I first began reading your response to Hugh Fulford ("The 'Belief After Baptism' Doctrine"), I guess what shocked me was not that Bro. Fulford said what he did, but that for years this had been my position also --- i.e., faith is a "dead" faith until one's nose pops up out of the water. Then it becomes a "living" faith. Of course, Bro. Fulford refers to this in different terms, but, basically, that is what many of us were taught to believe: one's faith is not "living" until one surfaces from the water. If it was a "living" faith before baptism, then something was clearly amiss with our theology. But, since obviously nothing could ever be wrong with "our" theology, then faith could NOT be "living" until one had the act of baptism behind him! Notice the nature of this theology:

  1. That means that our faith is dead until we surface from the water.
  2. That means that baptism itself saves us, not our faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (since faith is "dead" prior to surfacing from the water).
  3. Since our act of completing baptism produces a "live" faith, God is now obligated by our action of turning a "dead" faith into a "living" one, to save us. Thus, baptism is a meritorious action or work.
  4. Since baptism is the specific act that saves us by turning our "dead" faith into a "living" one (upon surfacing from the water), it sits in the exact same boat with circumcision (as taught by the Christian Judaizers in Acts 15).
  5. Since our faith does not "come alive" until we surface from the waters of baptism, shouldn't Jesus have said in Mark 16:16, "He that is (#1) baptized and then (#2) has a living faith shall be (#3) saved"?

It's very interesting that some of us have used James 2:20-24 to prove that Abraham's faith was a "dead" faith until he raised the knife to sacrifice Isaac. God didn't know he had a "living" faith until that precise moment in time. Therefore, from that passage we concluded that this was also the case with the "alien sinner." His faith does not "live" until he surfaces from the waters of baptism. Thus, he's saved by his action (work) rather than by his faith (in response to God's grace). Yet, as you have pointed out, Abraham's faith was reckoned unto him for righteousness in Gen. 12, and again in Gen. 15, long before he raised that knife in Gen. 22. A "dead" faith all those years?!! One that would condemn Abraham to hell if he had died prior to Gen. 22?!! Martin Luther misunderstood the teaching of James as it related to that of Paul, and so have we ... just in a different way.

From a Reader in Michigan:

Dear Brother Al, Very interesting article again on baptism. I am with you!! There is one verse, however, that I am still having trouble with, and I wonder if you might be able to explain it for me. That verse is found in Acts 11:14. Peter explains how he was to bring Cornelius a message "through which you and your household will be saved." That verse tells me that before they heard the message from Peter they were not saved, regardless of God's high praise of him in Acts 10. This remains a question for which I have heard no satisfactory answer yet.

From a New Reader in Oregon:

Brother Al, I have been receiving your Reflections from a friend who forwards them to me. I would very much like to be added to your email distribution list so that I might receive them from you directly in the future. By the way, a group of us here have been studying baptism recently in order to more fully understand baptism's place in salvation! One of the things we have noticed in our study is that, other than Paul, none of the apostles appear to have been baptized subsequent to Christ's crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. We have always just assumed that they were baptized! After all, they were apostles, right?! They wrote the NT, right?! So, of course they were baptized, right?! Yet, on this the NT is silent. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that we have been tremendously refreshed and encouraged by your Reflections. You are truly a man blessed by God.

From a University Professor in Kentucky:

Dear Bro. Maxey, A friend has sent me some of your Reflections articles on "silence." Very thought-provoking!! I have personally subscribed for some time to the view that "silence" prohibits, but at the same time I agree with you that most of what people put forth as "silence" is really just, as you have said, "specificity." So, I am now mulling these things over!!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Dear Brother Al, Thank You for the difference you are making!! I know of other very good, grace-centered men, but I know of NO others who are on the offense against legalism, and who are defending the faith, as you are now doing within the Stone-Campbell Movement congregations. Your articles are much needed, and I really appreciate them. May God add His best blessings upon you and your labor for Him! By the way, a few years ago I wrote an article on the topic of "obeying" the Gospel. You can find it at -- Click Here.

From a New Reader in South Carolina:

Dear Bro. Al, I was really impressed by your ability to "dig into the Scriptures" -- something pointed out to me by a friend on Facebook. I see so much superficial understanding of the Scriptures that I found your latest articles very enjoyable. Be blessed, and keep bringing us that depth of richness that is there in the Scriptures for those willing to see it.

From a Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Bro. Maxey, In your Reflections article "Can We Obey the Gospel?" you explained what I have literally been waiting years to hear from a Church of Christ source!! TERRIFIC!!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, I just wanted to pass along a link to you and your readers where they may find Cecil Hook's essays online (free of charge)!! Several years ago (before his passing) I worked closely with Cecil in managing the original "Freedom's Ring" web page. With the permission of Cecil's daughter, Mira Prince, I've put all of Cecil Hook's available essays back onto the Internet. They're in PDF format, and there are well over 400 of them!! I would appreciate your help in getting the word out about this site. Click Here to access the site where these essays are kept.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Brother Al, Thank You for pointing out the erroneous teaching that so many of us received growing up in Churches of Christ. Thank you specifically for pointing out what the Scriptures teach about the faith of the Ethiopian eunuch --- I had forgotten that. I can see why Hugh Fulford would not want to continue a discussion with you -- his words are contradicted by the Living Word. May all of us be willing to change our thinking on any subject to fit with what the Scriptures say!!

From a Reader in Washington:

My Dear Bro. Al, For some reason your latest issue of Reflections reminded me of a time back in the late 1950's. I sang in a high school quartet all four years, and so we were often asked to sing at various functions. One particular function was to be a couple of hundred miles away, and it would require us to be gone over the weekend. The only way I was allowed to go was if I promised to find a church that Sunday so that I could take the Communion. On the way back home from the event we came upon a little church building with the name "Church of God" on it. I figured it wasn't really "Scriptural," but close. When I went inside, I realized that I could not take the Lord's Supper there because they were playing a guitar in the service! My mother would be proud of me, I thought. There has been much water under the bridge since those days, and I am still a "work in progress." Although it's still a war, it's far more fun being a Christian today than it was yesterday!! I really do appreciate you and your work, brother!!

From a D.Min. in Mississippi:

Brother Al, Thank you for your article "The 'Belief After Baptism' Doctrine." I have long felt that when baptism is presented as part of the outworking of one's faith (i.e., a response of faith), it makes much more sense. Good job!!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, If what you are teaching is the truth, then we can all forget the Bible. It is impossible for your teachings to be true! You are just wrong. "He that believes and is baptized shall be saved." There can be absolutely NO exceptions!! Al, that verse will meet you at the Judgment. Who do you think will win? You or God? Without water baptism we have nothing but a false hope! That's Bible! You can believe it or not.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Dear Bro. Al, A dear old ultra-conservative brother, who has now long gone on to his reward, once told me in private that even he had a lot of questions about this particular issue (baptism), but "it's best not to upset your brethren sometimes." Well, in light of such outright falsehoods on this subject (as you have exposed in your writings recently), I say that it is imperative to "upset" our brethren at times, if this means exposing such false teachings and rescuing our brethren from the bonds of legalism. Al, your Reflections are one of my primary rescue tools!!

From a Reader in California:

Dear Brother Al, I'm again in AWE of your logic and the way you put words together so that I can fully understand. And you have so much common sense!! I was reminded of the old, old "Steps of Salvation" that were drilled into all of us. There's "hear," and then, lo and behold, the next one is "believe" ... and, of course, we know the next three!! So, there are actually people who put baptism before belief or faith?!! I think of when I was baptized at age 8. My primary thought was, "If I should die before I wake...", and if I should ever do something wrong, I'd go to hell. So, I got baptized out of stark terror!! Oh, little did I know!! But, I DID know and believe in my heart that it was the blood of Christ that saved me, NOT the water. Praise God for His mercy and grace!

From a Reader in New Jersey:

Brother Al, Have you written anything about the new birth as discussed between Nicodemus and our Lord? Oh, that the religionists among us would be as eager to understand this birth that is begotten by the Holy Spirit of God, rather than by us or by water!! You almost never cease to amaze me, brother! I wish I had known you back in the mid to late 80's ... nice to know you now, though!! Keep it up. You inspire us greatly!!

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear Brother Al, Another very excellent Reflections, brother!! The false doctrine of sacramental baptismal regeneration has been a festering cancer that has been widespread throughout the Stone-Campbell Movement for far too long! It is exciting to see a restoration of the soul-saving gospel of grace emerge and thrive in our former cold, dead legalistic environment. Bro. Al, you're not alone in your efforts -- many of us are standing with you and praying that the truth of salvation by grace through faith may be increasingly propagated among/by Churches of Christ and Christian Churches.

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Dear Brother Al, As I mentioned while speaking with you in person at your church building a few weeks ago, it would be a good thing for disciples today to survey the use of the word "immerse" (Greek: baptizo) in the NT text. Yes, sometimes the Scriptures speak of immersion in water, but the medium of immersion was not consistently water. Immersion was also with the Holy Spirit, fire, suffering, nations, Name, Jordan (water), the Name of Jesus, the Name of the Lord, the Name of the Lord Jesus, into the death of Jesus, in the name of Paul, unto Moses, into One Body, for the dead, into Christ, etc. The point is: tradition often has assumed the use of the word baptizo ALWAYS refers to immersion in water, but in reality that is inaccurate and misleading! 1 Cor. 12:13 clarifies this reality --- "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into One Body." Our entry into the One Body of Christ Jesus depends on the Spirit of God, not on any symbolic act of man. THAT is the "one baptism" spoken of by Paul in Ephesians 4. And yes, THAT baptism is essential for our salvation, whether we ever get wet or not! Keep preaching the Word, brother!! Of all the "theologians" out there, I have the greatest respect for you, and for your inquisitive, thoughtful analysis of the Scriptures!!

From a Reader in New Hampshire:

Dear Brother Al, "The 'Belief After Baptism' Doctrine" was a great article!! It really made me think! I have been studying this subject for a while, and I now realize that I can finally understand the argument that the Baptists have been making on this. One of the Church of Christ arguments that I've always heard is from James 2:19 -- "the demons also believe, and shudder." The argument is that you're not saved until after you OBEY (i.e., baptism). Belief/faith isn't enough; you have to be baptized. Otherwise, why aren't the demons saved? They too believe -- but they haven't been baptized (according to this argument)! Also, many Christians I know (including me) waited until the following Sunday to be baptized. If one really believed they weren't "saved" until AFTER baptism, why would they wait? The answer was: "Well, I have faith that God will keep me alive long enough to get baptized." Huh?!! This is just one of the many things that never really made any sense to me the older I got!! I have had the Baptists tell me that if I truly have FAITH, then I WILL be baptized. However, it is the faith that saves, not the baptism. I can now understand their point. Thank you, Al, for what you do!!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Brother Al, I am a student at Harding University, and I was moved by your latest Reflections in which you examined the false doctrine of "belief after baptism." I couldn't help but wonder if Hugh Fulford fully realized the implications of this false view of his. It could be used to justify infant baptism, for one. I know that some denominations hold that infants should be baptized, and they later come to be "true believers" after confirmation. Isn't this similar to what Hugh's promoting? You are right in pointing out that Scripture teaches that baptism is for believers only, and that it is an act of faith!! The Bible never teaches that our salvation is won through rituals or good works. It is a free gift of God that we accept through faith!

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