Posted by: rcottrill | July 28, 2010

Today in 1750 – Johann Sebastian Bach Died

Bach is universally considered one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Some say he ranks above all the rest. Certainly, he was the greatest composer of church music, and an ardent Christian himself. He was the most gifted organist of his day, and composed a great deal of music for the organ, as well as many orchestral works. Also, his sacred music includes the unparalleled St. Matthew Passion, and over 200 cantatas. (For a little more about Bach, see Today in 1685.)

Bach said, “Music’s only purpose should be for the glory of God and the recreation of the human spirit.” That is worth pondering. It parallels the two-dimensional description the Lord Jesus gave of “the great commandment:” love God, and love others (Matt. 22:35-40). How much music in the world today would be cast aside if we would ask, Does this truly glorify God? And is it wholesome and edifying to me and others?

The great composer sensed his need of God in his work, and relied upon divine enablement. Bach said, “Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.” As he took up a blank manuscript sheet to begin writing music notation, he frequently put “J.J.” at the top of the page, standing for Jesu Juva, “Help me, Jesus.” And at the bottom of the manuscript he would add “S.D.G.” representing Soli Deo Gloria, “To God alone the glory.”

Some tunes for hymns were taken from Bach’s works. For example, the tune Green Fields is used for John Newton’s How Tedious and Tasteless the Hours. Or the tunes were arrangements of the music of others, harmonized by Bach for use with a hymn. The most familiar example of the latter is the tune Passion Chorale, used with the hymn O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

Bach wrote the music for Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring to accompany the original German text by Martin Janus. (And incidently, the last line of the first stanza is not speaking of actual death. It is describing poetically the flight of worshipers around the throne of God. The thought is that they rise and fall, like the glittering waters of a fountain, in their ceaseless circling of the throne.)

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright;
Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring
Soar to uncreated light.
Word of God, our flesh that fashioned,
With the fire of life impassioned,
Striving still to truth unknown,
Soaring, dying round Thy throne.

Through the way where hope is guiding,
Hark, what peaceful music rings;
Where the flock, in Thee confiding,
Drink of joy from deathless springs.
Theirs is beauty’s fairest pleasure;
Theirs is wisdom’s holiest treasure.
Thou dost ever lead Thine own
In the love of joys unknown.

Bach was troubled with cataracts in his latter years, and two surgeries failed to restore his sight. His latter days were spent in almost total blindness. But he continued to compose to the end. At the age of 65, on his deathbed, he dictated his last piece of music, a chorale entitled, Before Thy Throne I Now Appear.

(2) Today in 1857 – Ballington Booth Born
Ballington Booth was the son of Salvation Army founder William Booth. He headed up the Salvation Army, first in Australia (1885-1887), then in America (1887-1896). In the latter years, he broke with his father’s organization and founded the Volunteers of America. The only hymn of his in wide use today is The Cross Is Not Greater, using the cross as a symbol of the believer’s suffering and sacrifice for the cause of Christ (cf. Matt. 16:24).

The cross that He gave may be heavy,
But it ne’er outweighs His grace;
The storm that I feared may surround me,
But it ne’er excludes His face.

The cross is not greater than His grace,
The storm cannot hide His blessèd face;
I am satisfied to know
That with Jesus here below,
I can conquer every foe.

(3) Today in 1894 – Jesse White Died
Jesse Tom White, a lifelong Baptist layman, was a composer and arranger of music for The Sacred Harp hymn book. He is credited with writing the tune sometimes called All Is Well which first appeared in The Sacred Harp in 1844. The Mormons adopted the melody for their signature hymn Come, Come, Ye Saints, speaking of the group’s search, under the leadership of Brigham Young, for a place to build a community of their own in America, where they could follow their beliefs.

We’ll find a place which God for us prepared
Far away, in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the saints will be blessed.

Most of the lyrics, however, could apply to a spiritual pilgrimage, and the hymn has been adapted at least a couple of times for orthodox Christian use. Avis B. Christiansen used some of the first stanza of the original, but almost entirely rewrote the rest of the song. In her lovely version, the stanza above begins:

God hath prepared a glorious home above
Round His throne, for His own,
Where they may rest forever in His love,
Toil and tears all unknown.


  1. […] life. It is entitled Before Thy Throne I Come. (for more about this amazing man and his music, see Today in 1750. (2) Today in 1748 – John Newton Converted The process by which the great pastor and hymn […]

  2. Thanks for covering Bach’s “birthday into heaven.”

    • Or his Graduation Day!


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