Posted by: rcottrill | August 22, 2012

In the Garden

Words: Charles Austin Miles (b. Jan. 7, 1868; d. Mar. 10, 1946)
Music: Charles Austin Miles

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

This 1912 offering is a song that has definitely received mixed reviews over the years. It has been scorned as a mere sentimental ballad. Carlton Young, in his Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (p. 432) says it is “often denounced as erotic and egocentric”! Yet it seems to be a favourite of many, and is often requested.

I’ve had it asked for at various times when a funeral service is being planned, and I always think, “What a lost opportunity!” There are so many great hymns that can comfort the sorrowing, or present the gospel of grace to needy sinners. Why opt for this shallow song? If you wonder what the options are for a memorial service, you can check out about thirty-five of them in the article Funeral Hymns.

Hymn writer, organist and sacred music editor Don Hustad tells of being at a dinner party where a woman complained that the church wasn’t singing the old favourites any more, “such as In the Garden.” Mr. Hustad says, “I couldn’t resist the temptation. ‘What garden?’ I asked.”

“What difference does it make ‘what garden’” she snapped, rather crossly.

But, as Don Hustad points out: “If the hymn is just a childhood favourite with pleasant phrases about gardens and birds and roses, it cannot be really meaningful in a vital worship experience today” (Crusade Hymn Stories, p. 49).

It helps a little when we learn that Austin Miles was thinking of the time when Mary Magdalene went to visit the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning (Jn. 20:1-18). And when He spoke her name (vs. 16), she knew who he was. As I say, it helps to know that–but only a little.

There’s not much substance to this song! And though it may give some hint of the emotional response of Mary to the Lord’s resurrection, it is not particularly factual. I’m not so sure the dew was still on the roses (whatever roses those were). Mary had already been to the tomb once (vs. 1). Then she went to tell Peter about what she saw (vs. 2), and he came, with John, and had a look (vs. 3-10). Only then do we see Mary at the tomb alone. So, considerable time had passed.

And did the birds really “hush their singing” at the sound of Jesus’ voice? I would think that, if anything, they would carol all the more joyfully. But nothing is said in Scripture either way. Nor is there much “walking and talking” with Jesus, to judge by the account. Immediately after Mary recognizes Him, the Lord says:

“Do not cling to Me [don’t hold on to Me], for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God’” (vs. 17).

At which Mary heads off to do as she’s been commanded (vs. 18). And what (or whose?) is “the voice of woe” that Miles refers to? According to the dictionary, “woe” is grievous distress, wretched melancholy, or lamentation. Where do you see that in the passage? Austin Miles states: “I wrote, as quickly as the words could be formed, the poem exactly as it has since appeared.” Perhaps he should have given the matter a little more thought!

A personal opinion: This weak gospel song is definitely at the low end of what I’d tolerate for use in services I plan. And on the rare occasions when I’ve used it, I’ve taken time to explain what it’s about, and relate it to the passage in John’s Gospel.

If we are to be “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16), and we’re to “sing with the understanding” (I Cor. 14:15), we need to select songs that speak biblically and clearly. “For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?” (I Cor. 14:8).

CH-1) I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

CH-3) I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

1) What other hymns and gospel songs are you reluctant to use (even though they seem to be favourites of some) because they are shallow and virtually meaningless, if not in error?

2) Why do you think people latch onto such songs? Is it because of a pleasing tune? Or maybe warm fuzzy sentiments?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. I agree with you completely on the uttter shallowness and Biblical poverty of this hymn. To answer question #1 – just about anything by the Gaithers, and nearly all “praise and worship” music that is so popular today. In his book,”Losing Our Virtue,” David Wells *nails it* with his cogent analysis and report on the negligible doctrinal content and “parasitic nature” of today’s popular Christian music.

    • Good to hear from you–and Wells’ comments are right on. Interestingly, I had a part in a funeral this week, and the family presented a lot of music, but it was almost all shallow, sentimental stuff. (Part of “In the Garden” was background music for a video presentation. If this had been a non-Christian family, I’d have understood it, but it’s a strongly evangelical family, some of whom I know well. I was so disturbed by it, I sat down and wrote an article called “Fit for the Occasion?” (Whether you can open it yet, I’m not sure. I’ve dated it to appear on the main page a week tomorrow.)

  2. Can’t open the file. Looking forward to next Sunday!

  3. […] is a little strange that of the hundreds of songs Austin Miles has given us, In the Garden should be, by far, the best known and most popular. This song was inspired by the meeting of Mary […]

  4. O come on, guys. Quit nit-pickin’. The experience of faith involves both the mind and the heart. Yes, we need hymns that present good theology, but a warm fuzzy once in awhile nurtures the heart. Much of our communion with Christ occurs in our imaginations, so is it wrong to imagine Mary’s feelings as she encounters Jesus?

    In this song the composer acts as a storyteller, as did the apostles, and all effective pastors. All storytellers enhance details of a scene in order to create a visual picture in the minds of their audience. Read GOSPEL PARALLELS and you will see the liberties the apostles took with the Gospel stories.

    Do you critics have no poetic sense? Dew on the roses is a poetic way of saying it was early in the morning. But then… Perhaps you guys need to include a verse that mentions a day with high humidity that delayed the evaporation of the dew.

    • H-m-m…Well, some interesting comments here, deserving of a response.

      Yes, Christian experience engages both mind and heart. But it isn’t “nit-pickin” to insist that appeals to the heart in our hymns are not simply vague sentiment that either has no biblical foundation or, worse, has a false one. If we are to teach one another with our spiritual songs (Col. 3:16), and not be found false witnesses of God (a concern of Paul’s, I Cor. 15:15), we need to be sensitive as to whether our hymnody is both emotionally authentic and doctrinally precise.

      The blogger asks, “Is it wrong to imagine Mary’s feelings as she encounters Jesus?” No, not at all. But we must not pretend that is part of the historical facts of Scripture. And the problem with Austin Miles’ hymn is that he doesn’t represent Mary’s feelings well. One of the great weaknesses of this gospel song lies in what is omitted from it. There is no mention of Mary Magdalene by name (cf. Jn. 20:18), or the fact that this is the garden where the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea was to be found (Jn. 19:41). We are left to guess as to what is happening, and to whom.

      Don Hustad’s question quoted in the article (“What garden?”) is entirely pertinent. It’s clear that many who enjoy this song have no idea that it is telling us of Mary’s encounter with the risen Christ. It’s just a nice song. Whether phrases such as “while the dew is still on the roses,” and “the voice of woe,” are poetic or not, they may not represent the facts. That should concern us. Poetic license is one thing, but it should connect with the biblical account.

      As to the apostles taking “liberties” with the Gospel accounts, how could they? They were commissioned by the Lord Himself to be witnesses concerning what happened, and what it meant (Lk. 24:48; Acts 1:8), not to make up touching stories! The writer’s mention of “Gospel Parallels” may refer a work called The Five Gospel Parallels, published by the University of Toronto. It cites various apocryphal works, but these are not a part of God’s inspired Word, and cannot be used to prove apostolic “liberties.”

      To see how seriously the followers of Christ took their responsibility as His witnesses, we only need to turn to the book of Acts (Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31; cf. I Pet. 5:1; I Jn. 1:2). Dr. Luke, also, assures us of the accuracy of his account (Lk. 1:1-4).

      Story tellers may “enhance the details of a scene” to make a good story. Jesus did that in His parables but those were fictional stories, told illustrate a spiritual lesson. Historical narratives are different. Either they represent the facts or they do not. No inspired writer of Holy Scripture added details from his own imagination to make the accounts more interesting. All Scripture is God-breathed (II Tim. 3:16).

      As my article points out, this song has justly received mixed reviews, and if we are selecting hymns for a memorial service there are many choices that are vastly superior.

  5. Though I love this melody, I understand and agree with your points regarding the lyrics. Also, do you think the words accompany the mindset of some people who insist that God speaks to them in an audible voice?

    • You raise an interesting point. First, let me say that I don’t think the vast majority of people sing hymns and gospel songs intelligently. Twice in Scripture it speaks of singing with “ “understanding” (Ps. 47:7; I Cor. 14:15). But we often fail to do that.

      As an example, for this morning’s service, I’d put a hymn, a chorus, and another hymn together to do two things. First, to allow us to be overwhelmed and filled with praise as we contemplated the wonderful love of God. Then, to realize how far short our own love falls in comparison, and pray that God would help us to grow more like Christ.

      I was not leading the service, or it might have been done differently. But the service leader utterly failed to call our attention to the message of the songs. The chorus was sung poorly, leading to laughter and silly comments. And, after the three selections were concluded, the service leader said, “Thank you for your excellent singing”–which it wasn’t, and that is irrelevant anyway! (I actually hung my head and wept.)

      I urge pastors and service leaders to not just have people sing sacred songs, but to use them. That is, to call attention to what is being taught, either by quoting a relevant Scripture verse, or quoting a significant line (or lines) of the hymn. On occasion, I’ve had the whole congregation read the hymn in unison, before we sing it. (Worthwhile with the richly detailed text of a song such as More Holiness Give Me.)

      There are several things in In the Garden that don’t line up with Scripture. But when I try to point that out, folks will focus on, “He walks with me and He talks with me,” and express a kind of sentimental feeling that Jesus is near. That is true, He is. But there are other hymns that say it far better.

      You mention another thing that captivates attention and wins a song’s favour: the tune. I’ve heard that, too, when I’ve criticized a hymn’s text. “Well, it’s got a great tune!” Sometimes having folks sing a hymn text to a different tune actually spoils it for them–because that’s what they really love: the tune. What a Friend We Have in Jesus just wouldn’t be the same without the tune of Charles Converse, but the great tune Blaenwern lifts the text a notch higher in my view.

      Now, as to your question: yes, it’s quite possible that the song appeals to those who believe the Lord speaks to them in an audible voice. I don’t want to insist He never does, but in the vast majority of cases He speaks through His Word. But even Austin Miles’ account of how he wrote the hymn suggests that it came to him in a supernatural experience. He says:

      “My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden. [Here, he goes on to describe the scene in John 20 as though being an actual observer. Then he says:] I awakened in full light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed.”

      I’m very skeptical of this sort of thing. I hesitate to put God in a box and say it never happens. But I think if the Lord had supernaturally intervened, the song would have been better.

      Thanks so much for your comments. God bless.

  6. Biblically I agree with you. Before I studied this hymn and read your article, I really had no clue it was about Mary’s encounter. I always thought it was about someone’s prayer and devotion time. The Lord calling us to spend time with Him. “And the joy we share as we tarry there,” I always took as how sweet the time we spend with Jesus.

    The Gaither’s “He Touched Me” is the same to me. Though you have related it to different verses in the Bible in your article, never once when singing it have I ever related it to anything more than an emotional response to spending time with Jesus.

    So to me they both deserve the same weight when it comes to any criticism.

    Thank you for your blog. I appreciate all your insight

    • Very encouraging to find a kindred spirit with regard to this song. It does speak in a vague way about fellowship with the Lord, but surely we can do better. That it’s a favourite, and almost always requested at funerals I’ve conducted, doesn’t say much about the song. Rather, it speaks to how poorly taught many are about the great hymns of the faith. I fault pastors and service leaders for that. And going back a step further, I think many Bible colleges are failing to teach hymnology as they should. God bless, and thanks for your note.


%d bloggers like this: