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History: “There is a Happy Land”

In hymnody, “There is a Happy Land” might be considered a one-hit wonder. While unknown to most modern church-goers, the hymn one of the most popular nineteenth century hymns in American and British Sunday schools.  

“The Happy Land” in David’s Harp‎ (1842). From hymnary.org

School teacher Andrew Young (1807-1889) wrote “The Happy Land” in 1838. Young was a teacher and then a headmaster in Edinburgh and St. Fife, Scotland. As a poet he wrote hymn texts for Sunday school students, some of which reached wider audiences. Young (1876) recalls spending time with friends when he heard woman playing an “Indian air” at the piano, which he says “charmed me exceedingly” (vi). The tune stuck with him and soon after he the wrote three rhyming stanzas of “The Happy Land” in the middle of the night.

There is still some confusion regarding the origin of the tune that Young heard, now called Happy Land. Young claims that he heard the tune as part of a piano piece called the “Siege of Dehli,” but this music reflects on an event in 1857, almost 20 years after he heard the tine. Griffiths (1904) suggests that there may have been another piece of music written about Dehli in the early nineteenth century, with similar melodic ideas (p. 41). Alternatively, modern hymnology suggests that the tune was written by Robert Archibald Smith with the words “I have come from a happy land”, different than Young’s text (Cokrell, 2011). Early twentieth century American sheet music for this song attributes to a “Hindostan [Indian] air.”

Despite being membered only for “There is a Happy Land”, Young was a prolific poet and frequently contributor to poetry journals. Julian (1892) writes that “his poems entitle him to rank in the first order of Scottish minor poets.”  Young’s book The Scottish Highlands and other Poems (1876) contains many beautiful hymn texts and poems.

Fortunately, Young was able to watch his famous hymn spread around the world through the work of Presbyterian missionaries such as Jon Ingills (Julian 1892). The song was first popularized by Rev. James Fall in his Sacred Song Book (1843) and after a few decades, it appeared in hundreds of hymnals in America and the UK and in translation by members of the London Missionary Society (L. M. S). Griffiths (1904) writes:

Of all the Sunday School hymns which attained world-wide popularity, there is perhaps not one that is more generally liked than that of the commencing ‘There is a happy land.’ From our earliest childhood, and the singing of it brings back vividly all the hallowed associations of that happy time… (41).

Butterworth and Brown (1906) give further praise: “his little carol had become one of the universal hymns”.  In gratitude for the using the hymn Young (1876) writes that “the anecdotes which have reached me of the blessing it has proved to both young and old, in many lands, have been to me a source of the highest gratification and thankfulness” (p. vi).

The hymn has been referenced in many times in popular cultural including the in an issue of the comic strip Krazy Kat, the Mark Twain novel The American Claimant (1892) and the films The King and I (1956) and The Proposition (2005).  Despite its “universal acclaim,” the hymn is not nearly as popular today as it once was. The website hymnary.org lists 539 hymnals containing “There is a Happy Land”, but only three of these were compiled after 1970.

The three-stanza hymn is an invitation to heaven. An irregular ABAACCCA rhyme scheme is punctuated in the middle section of the tune.

There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day;
Oh, how they sweetly sing, worthy is our Savior King,
Loud let His praises ring, praise, praise for aye.

Come to that happy land, come, come away;
Why will you doubting stand, why still delay?
Oh, we shall happy be, when from sin and sorrow free,
Lord, we shall live with Thee, blest, blest for aye.

Bright, in that happy land, beams every eye;
Kept by a Father’s hand, love cannot die;
Oh, then to glory run; be a crown and kingdom won;
And, bright, above the sun, we reign for aye.

The first stanza introduces a distant realm (the “happy land”) where the saints worship the savior on his thrown (see Revelation 4-5, 7). The text urges the listener to join the throng (“Why will you doubting stand, why still delay?” and “Oh, then to glory run”) and shares a feeling of happiness brought by redemption (“sin and sorrow free”; Rev 7:14). The third stanza share some of the aspects of this other realm: perpetual love (“love cannot die”), saints with crowns (Rev. 4:4) and light brighter than the sun (Rev. 21:23). Similar texts with “heavenly” themes including the last verse of “Amazing Grace,” starting “when we’ve been there ten thousand years”, the saints “casting down their golden crowns” in “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Rev. 4:9).

Reflection Questions:

  1. What do you remember from your Sunday school experience? Were there any themes or lessons that stuck with you?
  2. Are there any hymns that you consider “universal hymns”, which are familiar and well-liked by many Christian audiences?
  3. The tune for “There is a Happy Land” may have been known to common people as a “song of the day”. Many of Luther’s hymns were also based on popular songs. What role does popular music play in worship in modern churches? What role should it play?
  4. How do you think Young felt knowing his song had such an impact?  The Apostle Paul lists several “spiritual gifts”. Do you recognize any of these gifts in yourself or others? (See also: Romans 12:6–8, 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 and Ephesians 4:11).

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:28


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John Newton was a slave ship captain

Despite our sentimental attachment to the song, the story of “Amazing Grace” is intertwined with the story of transatlantic slave trade. In fact, the hymnwriter’s life tells us not only about grace, but about justice.

While his mother hoped that he would join the clergy, English hymn writer John Newton (1725-1807) renounced his Christian faith after joining the Royal Navy. Reflecting later Newton writes, “Like an unwary sailor who quits his port just before a rising storm, I renounced the hopes and comforts of the Gospel at the very time when every other comfort was about to fail me.” Newton was so headstrong that his vulgar disagreements with shipmates caused him to starve and he was later enslaved on a planation in Sierra Leone. He was eventually freed by his father, who was an influential shipping merchant.

In 1748, abroad the Greyhound, a violent storm knocked one of Newton’s crewmates off the almost-capsized ship. To keep from being thrown overboard, Newton tied himself to a pump on the ship, telling his captain, “if this will not do, then Lord have mercy upon us!” Newton survived and landed in Ireland two weeks later.

After the incident on the Greyhound, Newton famously rethought his relationship God after years of mocking others for their faith. Even so, Newton continued to work on salve ships and lead several voyages through Africa and North America as a ship captain, participating in despicable acts of coercion and violence against Africans.

In 1750 Newton finally quite sailing so he could return to England to be with his wife Polly. While working as a customs agent, Newton taught himself theology and his friends suggested he become a priest. He was ordained in the Church of England in 1764, after being initially turned down since many of his friends associated with the emerging Methodist movement headed by John and Charles Wesley. Newton joined a small perish in a village of 2,500 residents, mostly poor and illiterate. He was noted for preaching about his own weakness during a time of elitism by celery. Inspired by the texts of Isaac Watts (“O God Our Help in Ages Past”) and Charles Wesley (“Christ the Lord is Rise Today”), Newton wrote his own hymns for local prayer meetings. In 1772, Amazing Grace was first presented as a poem at one of these meeting. (The modern tune for the text, called NEW BRITAIN, would not be composed until 1822, during the Second Great Awakening in the United States.)

Despite the dramatic story told in movies and books—that Newton was saved from a shipwreck and turned his life to God—it was not until 30 years later (in 1788) that Newton finally came to condemn slavery. In Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade, he described the horrific conditions of slaves and apologized for “a confession, which … comes too late … It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Newton writes of “the hour I first believed” in “Amazing Grace”, but he also viewed faith as a more gradual experience: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

Why is this story important? Certainly God uses imperfect people to accomplish great things (c.f. any non-divine Bible character). However, while researching this story I was struck by the fact we can indifferent or complacent in matters of injustice and oppression. Despite working in the slave trade and being a priest for several decades, Newton was only able to realize the horrors of slavery much, much later. He lived long enough to see the passage of the Slave Trade Act 1807 which finally ended the selling and trading of human slaves.

How are systems of  injustice perpetuated today? What might be preventing us from realizing that how we treat different kinds of people might simply be wrong? And how can engage in “Kingdom work” to make reparations? In scripture, God’s kingdom and people are often compared to a vineyard. The prophet Isaiah writes a “love-song concerning his vineyard”, but is quick to call out the nation of Israel for violence and injustice.

My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
    but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
   but heard a cry!

Isaiah 5:1-2, 7

Once we recognize our privilege, justice is only achieved by consistent and honest efforts. Jesus told a parable about the persistence of justice-seekers and the difficulty of facing the powers that be:

Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

Luke 18:1-8 (Paraphrased)

Like John Newton’s remarks on slavery, I hope that all of us consider the ways we might be participate in systems of injustice and work toward being “repairers of the breach.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
    the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    and satisfy your needs in parched places,
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to live in.

Isaiah 58:9b-12
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Why is “Jesus” sung as a minor third?

Why is “Jesus” sung as a minor third?

I remember hearing the German carol Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine for the first time while I was playing at a local church in college. I was struck by the passage in the refrain that repeats “Jesus” with two descending minor-thirds.

Excerpt from the refrain of Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine (RESONET IN LAUDIBUS)

This part of the refrain is a meditation on the name of Jesus, whom the song beautifully identifies as “love’s diadem.”

Later I realized that this same melodic motif appears in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an early Lutheran hymntune found in several Bach cantatas.  In fact in many renderings of the text in English (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star) fit the words “Jesus, Jesus” to the minor third motif in the first verse.

Excerpt from “How Brightly Shines the Morning Star”

Similar to Joseph Dearest, this passage repeats a V-I cadence pattern underlying descending minor thirds, except that both chords are now major.

That Jesus is most-often represented as a minor-third in music is a dubious claim. After all, in most hymn-like melodies the majority of intervals are thirds and seconds (musical “steps”), of which there are four total varieties. Perhaps it’s the phrase in Joseph Dearest which clearly dwells on the name of “Jesus” using a minor third that creates my own association between the minor third and “Jesus”. The match is very effective. The phrase is repeating using longer notes, contrasts rest of the surrounding melody, dwelling on the name of “Jesus”.

Other Hymns

After finding “Jesus motif” in two different hymns, I wondered if Jesus appeared as a minor third in any other hymns. A quick search on hymnary.org gives a clear yes. In fact, some of the most popular tunes and texts of all time, including Jesus, Loves Me and What a Friend We Have In Jesus place the word Jesus over a minor third in the opening phrase.

In most of these examples the Jesus motif is created by the minor third between the fifth and third scale degrees (so – mi). In some cases (e.g. Stand up for Jesus) the interval is created by the first and sixth scale degrees (do – la). Perhaps the most striking example is the opening of the Gaither song There’s Something About That Name, which uses three minor third recitations of “Jesus”.

Universal Intervals

Why does the Jesus motif seem to appear in so many well-known hymns? Is there something special about a minor third?

In a 2010 study from Tufts University, researchers recorded acting students speaking and noted that more significantly a change in pith at about ~300 cents (a minor third) were strongly associated with parts of the speeches as expressing a “sad” idea.

In his famous lecture series The Unanswered Question, Leonard Bernstein tried to tease out universal qualities of musical, including a “grammar” to explain musical elements like linguists explain language.  One salient observation Bernstein makes is that the universality of the minor third as the first musical interval learned by children. Winner (1982) argues that “children in different cultures tend to tease each other by singing a repetitive minor third” (p. 230).

Figure from Winner (1982) showing minor thirds in “children’s chants”

Hence, the minor third may be a more universal interval, innate in spoken communication and is often associated with sadness. It is tempting to extend this idea and suggest that name of “Jesus” (perhaps more accurately, “Christ”) is appropriately paired with a minor third since it represents universal human longing found in the suffering of Jesus, just as the minor third represents a universal human expression of sadness.

But of course the messiah’s name is not “Jesus” in most languages. And most aspects of music are probably not universal outside of Western society. (And humans generally like finding spurious patterns!) An optimistic explanation is that the Jesus motif in Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern became an earworm for later hymn writers. Still, there’s “something about the name” of Jesus.