Posted by: rcottrill | July 1, 2009

True Stories or Not?

A friend chatted with me skeptically one day about the history of our hymns. His view was that most of the stories he’d read came from someone’s imagination. Or that they were at least full of inaccuracies. He pointed out that sometimes several conflicting accounts were given about a particular hymn. His conclusion: Since they can’t be relied on, why bother with them?

Was he right? Perhaps in part–and occasionally. But we need to think a bit about the source material for books and articles written by people like me.

Some information we have comes from journals and autobiographies, written by the authors of our hymns themselves. (They should know!) Other data comes from the reminiscences of people who knew them, and talked with them. (My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns, written by Ira Sankey in 1905, is an example of both, since he not only worked with many hymn writers but was one himself. The same can be said for the writings of men such as Oswald Smith and Al Smith.)

But certainly there are times when memories fail, and details get mixed up. Incidents recorded years after the fact have that weakness. The best we can do is cross-check various resources, as far back as possible.

In a few cases I have met the hymn writers themselves (Robert Harkness, Oswald Smith, Lance Latham, Don Hustad and Margaret Clarkson come to mind). In addition, I have dozens of hymn history books, as well as hymn books, in my library, going back into the 1800’s (and even a reprint of a book from the 1700’s). To augment the information there, I work at tracking down data with letters, e-mails and phone calls, trying to confirm what I know, and find new details.

As an example of the latter, Dion De Marbelle wrote the gospel song When They Ring the Golden Bells for You and Me in 1887. An unusual character, De Marbelle was the first circus clown employed by James A. Bailey (of Barnum and Bailey Circus fame). Later, he assisted Buffalo Bill Cody in setting up his spectacular Wild West Show. Knowing this, I contacted a circus museum, and the historical society in the town where De Marbelle died. I came up with information, confirmed by newspaper clippings and official records of the time, of a touching story about the man I’ve never seen written elsewhere.

Bottom line: In most cases, we can have reasonable confidence in the history that has been preserved for us. When some point is in serious question, I will try to indicate it in the Today feature of the blog. And these stories are definitely worth reading. Many times they grew out of a personal experience with God, and are a testimony to His providential care for His children–and much more. Knowing some of the background of the songs we sing gives us new insight into their meaning.


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