James Milton Black was an American gospel song writer with about 1,500 songs to his credit. He also edited a dozen song books. Trained in both voice and the organ, Black conducted singing schools, and was an active layman in his home church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Of his many songs, only one remains in common use, When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder (though he did also write the tune for several lyrics written by others). Of the writing of the song, Black says:
I one day met a girl [named Bessie], fourteen years old, poorly clad, and the child of a drunkard. She accepted my invitation to attend the Sunday School, and joined the young people’s society. One evening…when members answered the roll call by repeating Scripture texts, she failed to respond. I spoke of what a sad thing it would be, when our names are called from the Lamb’s Book of Life, if one of us should be absent. And I said, ‘O God, when my own name is called up yonder, may I be there to respond!’
When he returned home that evening, James Black wrote the song inspired by this incident. It turned out that Bessie had been absent because she was seriously ill, and she died shortly after. Black spoke of the above incident at her funeral service, and his song was first sung publicly at that time. Reportedly, it had a great impact on those gathered.
Ten years later, when asked for permission to include When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder in a new song book, he asked for more money, claiming that it was “the greatest song that has ever been written for the last twenty five years.” It wasn’t, of course. And when he was asked to join a committee to produce a new hymnal for the Methodist Episcopal Church, it is significant that not one of his own gospel songs was added to the book, including this one. Nevertheless, the song is a useful reminder to be sure our names are recorded in the Book of Life through faith in Christ (Rev. 20:15).
When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
And time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather
Over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.
James Milton Black is best known in hymn history as the author of When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder. But one of his songs, God Is Here and That to Bless Us (also known as Revive the Hearts of All) is a fervent prayer for renewal and revival. It was first published in 1889. You can see the full song, and hear the tune, on the Cyber Hymnal.
God is here, and that to bless us
With the Spirit’s quick’ning power;
See, the cloud already bending,
Waits to drop the grateful shower.
Let it come, O Lord, we pray Thee,
Let the shower of blessing fall;
We are waiting, we are waiting,
Oh, revive the hearts of all.
God is here! we feel His presence
In this consecrated place;
But we need the soul refreshing
Of His free, unbounded grace.
Saviour, grant the prayer we offer,
While in simple faith we bow,
From the windows of Thy mercy
Pour us out a blessing now.
There are two misconceptions concerning James Black. Author Phil Kerr in his book, Music in Evangelism, must have him confused with someone else. He has Black born in Scotland in 1882, kidnapped, and brought to Canada at the age of 8, where he was raised by an elderly clergyman! Not the same man, I’m sure. Also, in numerous hymn histories Black is wrongly credited with writing music for When the Saints Go Marching In, recorded by jazz musician Louis Armstrong in 1948. This error is easier to understand. Black produced a song with a similar title called When the Saints Are Marching In!
(2) Today in 1883 – Howard Walter Born
Howard Arnold Walter provides a personal example of the kind of dedication described in the only hymn we have from him, I Would Be True. The song was written in 1906, while he was teaching English at Waseda University, in Japan. He entitled the lines of verse “My Creed,” and mailed them to his mother. The poem was published in Harper’s Bazaar the next year.
In 1913 Walter joined the staff of the YMCA. He was encouraged by John R. Mott to go and work among the Islamic students in Lahore, India. Doctors advised against this, due to his weak heart, but he insisted he must “be true” to his calling. He died in India during an influenza epidemic.
I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer;
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.