Posted by: rcottrill | March 23, 2010

In March of 1799 – Thomas Olivers Died

We know that Thomas Olivers died in March of 1799, but historians are unsure of the precise date. (Likewise, the date of his birth remains obscure.) However, I did want to include him and his wonderful hymn.

Thomas Olivers’ parents died when he was only 4 years old. He was apprenticed in time to a shoemaker, got in with some rough companions, and led an immoral and profligate life. Today he might be described as a juvenile delinquent, and he was notorious in town. But one day he heard George Whitefield preach on Zech. 3:2, which tells us:

The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is this not a brand plucked from the fire?”

It is a reference to the God’s preservation of Israel, and His deliverance of the people from the Babylonian Captivity. Whitefield apparently applied it to the Lord’s desire to rescue lost sinners, brands to be plucked from the fire. Olivers heard and responded, trusting Christ as his Saviour, and his life was miraculously transformed.

John Wesley later recognized how gifted the young man was, and engaged him as a Methodist evangelist. He preached the gospel boldly, in spite of some violent opposition, traveling over 100,000 miles on horseback, in England and Ireland, during 25 years of fruitful ministry.

Thomas Olivers also wrote a number of hymns, though only one remains in common use. Critics have judged it to be one of the finest in the English language, and it has an unusual background. Mr. Olivers was visiting in the home of hymn writer John Bakewell around 1770, when he attended a service at a synagogue in London, and heard a Jewish cantor named Meyer Lyon (also called Leoni) sing the Yigdal, a Hebrew doxology. (It is quite possible that Jesus Himself sang this melody.) Olivers was so impressed with it he decided to use it for a hymn that expressed Christian truth, also emphasizing its connection with Judaism. He called the result A Hymn to the God of Abraham.

The song is loaded with Bible references and allusions. It is worth reading through all 12 stanzas of this great hymn (see The God of Abraham Praise in the Cyber Hymnal). Below are three of Olivers stanzas. Note the remarkable statement in the third, “He calls a worm His friend”! It is an expression the Lord also uses of the nation of Israel:

“Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I will help you,” says the Lord and your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. (Isa. 41:4)

Though believers today may balk at calling themselves “worms,” it aptly describes lost sinners as both weak and despised. (Olivers no doubt remembered his early years, and he knew what he was!) There is nothing worthy in any of us by which we merit salvation. Nor have we the power to save ourselves. It is all by what the hymn writer calls God’s “all sufficient grace.”

The God of Abraham praise, who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days, and God of love;
Jehovah, great I AM! by earth and heav’n confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred name forever blessed.

The God of Abraham praise, at whose supreme command
From earth I rise–and seek the joys at His right hand;
I all on earth forsake, its wisdom, fame, and power;
And Him my only portion make, my Shield and Tower.

The God of Abraham praise, whose all sufficient grace
Shall guide me all my happy days, in all my ways.
He calls a worm His friend, He calls Himself my God!
And He shall save me to the end, through Jesus’ blood.

(2) James Proctor (Data Missing)
James Proctor is another individual for whom we have no definite dates, though we know he lived in the latter part of the nineteenth century. And Jim was an atheist for most of his life. Though he had early Christian training–had even attended Sunday school–he turned his back on it all in his teen years. Reading many books written by atheists and agnostics convinced him that religion was not for him. He became the president of the Free Thinkers Society, in Manchester, England, and continued to speak out against Christ and the gospel.

Mr. Procter even wrote some lines of poetry, mocking Christianity. They reveal his troubled heart, along with his continuing refusal to consider Christ as the answer. The poem begins:

I’ve tried in vain a thousand ways
My fears to quell, my hopes to raise.
But what I need, the Bible says,
Is ever, only Jesus.

But it was written sarcastically. He didn’t believe that, and sneered at the weak-minded fools who did–until something happened.

Jim Procter took seriously ill. He was sure he was going to die, and the thought of facing eternity filled him with agonizing dread. As with many before him, that terrible foreboding finally drove him to the cross. He asked his sister to send for a minister of the gospel. The pastor came to his bedside and faithfully presented the gospel, with the result that the sick man trusted Christ as his Saviour. A short time later, he began a slow recovery.

One day, his sister was sitting by his bedside, and he asked her to open the drawer of his bureau and take out a piece of paper–the poem just described. Jim told her he wanted to finish it, to dictate two more verses for her to write down. With great excitement her brother expressed his newfound faith with these words:

He died, He lives, He reigns, He pleads;
There’s love in all His words and deeds–
There’s all a guilty sinner needs
Forevermore in Jesus.

Though some should sneer, and some should blame,
I’ll go with all my guilt and shame;
I’ll go to Him because His name,
Above all names, is Jesus.

Mr. Procter’s sister attended an R. A. Torrey evangelistic meeting in Manchester, in November of 1903. There she gave the text of her brother’s poem to the evangelist’s associate, hymn writer Robert Harkness (1880-1961), explaining the remarkable circumstances that led to its creation. He thanked her, and soon after wrote some music to go with it, calling the little song, In Jesus. This is surely the only hymn written from two completely different points of view, a testimony from an atheist, who later became a Christian. (For a bit more about Mr. Harkness, see the third item under Today in 1791.)


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