Posted by: rcottrill | May 13, 2010

Today in 1839 – William Mackay Born

There are many inspiring stories connected with the writing of our hymns. But it would be difficult to find a more unusual one than what happened to William Mackay.

When, at the age of seventeen, he left his humble Scottish home to attend college, his godly mother gave him a Bible in which she wrote his name and a verse of Scripture. Away from home, he began well. But as time went by he drifted further and further from the way he had been raised. He began drinking heavily. At a low point, to satisfy his thirst for whiskey, he carelessly pawned the Bible his mother had given him.

Many years went by. Eventually, MacKay completed medical training and took up his work in a city hospital. There one day the Lord met him in a special way. I imagine it started out like any other day, doing rounds, writing reports. But in one room he had an encounter that changed everything. It was a sad case. The patient was nearing the end. No hope for him. “Bring me my book!” he cried. “I need my book!” And the words seemed to echo in the flinty soul of Dr. MacKay.

Awhile later, he was told the fellow had died. And the doctor went back to the room, curious to find out what “book” had been so precious that holding it once more had been a dying man’s greatest desire. Soon his search uncovered a Bible. But not just any Bible. There inside the front cover, in his mother’s hand, was his own name, William Paton MacKay. It had been many years since he had seen it, but there could be no mistake. Someone had reclaimed the Bible from that pawn shop, and it had become a priceless treasure to a dying man.

MacKay went to his office and closed the door. He opened the Bible, slowly turning the worn and weathered pages.  Many contained specially marked verses his mother hoped he would read. He was alone in that room for many hours. But when he emerged the long night of sin had been blasted away by the life-changing light of heaven. With a newly tender heart, and a desire to reclaim wasted years, he resigned his place at the hospital. After training he went on to serve the Lord as a pastor. It is W. P. MacKay who wrote the hymn Revive Us Again.

We praise Thee, O God!
For the Son of Thy love,
For Jesus who died,
And is now gone above.

Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Hallelujah! Amen.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Revive us again.

We praise Thee, O God!
For Thy Spirit of light,
Who hath shown us our Saviour,
And scattered our night.

(2) Today in 1842 – Arthur Sullivan Born
Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan is known to most of the world as the partner of William Gilbert, the team that produced a series of immensely popular comic operettas, such as H.M.S. Pinafore, and The Mikado. Sullivan had a sense of humour, but he also had a serious side. He is recognized today as one of the greatest church musicians of the Victorian era. (For a bit more about the man, see the second item under Today in 1840.)

Sullivan gave us a number of hymn tunes still in common use: St. Gertrude (for Onward Christian Soldiers), St. Kevin (for Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain), Hanford (for My God, My Father, While I Stray, and for Jesus, My Saviour, Look on Me), and Samuel (for Hushed Was the Evening Hymn). Sir Arthur also gave us the stirring music for The Lost Chord.

Is The Lost Chord a hymn? No, not exactly (though both Adelaide Proctor, who wrote the words, and Sullivan, who composed the tune, contributed to our hymnody). And it does touch on biblical themes. The song speaks to the unique power of music to inspire and uplift the soul. (Something God knew, because He created it.) The Bible says “He has put eternity in [our] hearts” (Ecc. 3:11, NKJV), and I personally believe music will be a universal language of heaven.

The Lost Chord deals with the elusiveness of those ephemeral moments when music blesses us beyond words, times almost impossible to recover or duplicate. Yet there is an expression of hope in the soaring climax of Adelaide Proctor’s lyric that such sublime experiences await the people of God in heaven. Sir Arthur Sullivan must have had similar thoughts about his music. He wrote it while sitting at the deathbed of his brother Fred. In 1888, Sir Arthur’s tune became one of the earliest to be recorded–a recording that can still be heard on YouTube.

For your interest, I have provided links to two beautiful renditions of this song. One is strictly instrumental, by an excellent concert band.

The other version of the song is by British tenor Webster Booth. Of the many famous singers who have attempted to do justice to this piece (including Enrico Caruso and John McCormack), I believe Booth’s version is one of the best. The singing is subdued but suggests intense emotion, expressed with impeccable diction. Here, from 1939, is Webster Booth singing The Lost Chord.

(3) Today in 1910 – Lister Derricks Born
Lister Cleavant Derricks was a Baptist clergyman who served in churches in Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Washington DC, not only as pastor, but as choir director. He also wrote more than 300 gospel songs, most published by Stamps-Baxter during the Depression. Mr. Derricks died in 1977. He was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001. Several of his songs became gospel quartet standards, including We’ll Soon Be Done with Troubles and Trials, and Just a Little Talk with Jesus.

In the 1930’s he was ministering in a small, impoverished black church. They badly needed new hymn books, but had no money to purchase them. Several urged Pastor Derricks to see if he could sell some of his songs to a publisher in exchange for some hymnals. And that is how the church got 50 new hymn books, and the world got Just a Little Talk with Jesus.

I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in.
And then a little light from heaven filled my soul.
It bathed my heart in love, and wrote my name above,
And just a little talk with Jesus made me whole.


  1. […] (2) Today in 1900 – Arthur Sullivan Died Arthur Seymour Sullivan was best known in his day for writing popular operettas with William Gilbert (such as H.M.S. Pinafore). But he wrote a wide variety of other music as well, including many hymn tunes. After he was knighted by Queen Victoria, some criticized him for “lowering” himself to write comic operas, but others praised the genius that enabled him to compose music in so many styles, and do it so well. (For more about Sir Arthur and his work, see the second item under Today in 1839.) […]

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  4. […] True story, check it out here: […]

  5. Do you have or know the original reference for this story? I see it on many websites but no one gives a reference.

    • H-m-m… Interesting question! I’ve been studying our English hymnody and writing about it for many years. Some of the articles were produced for the back of our Sunday bulletin in a church where I was pastor years ago. Others started as newspaper articles. I say that to indicate that I wasn’t doing scholarly, footnoted dissertations. That makes it difficult to go back now and find my sources. There are over seventy books in the blog’s Bibliography, and I’m still adding others–plus research done on the Net, by phone and e-mails.

      All that to say it’s tricky to go back and find sources, though I assure you I try to be as accurate as possible. Many books give biographical details of William Mackay (pronounced Mc-EYE by the Scots). But I notice the full story is found on p. 147 of Then Sings My Soul, by Robert J. Morgan (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003). Though Morgan doesn’t identify his source either, it sounds as though the account comes from some kind of memoir written by the doctor himself. (He did write several books.) The account begins: “In his own words, here is the testimony of Scottish doctor W. P. MacKay.”


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