Posted by: rcottrill | July 24, 2013

Near to the Heart of God

Words: Cleland Boyd McAfee (b. Sept. 25, 1866; d. Feb. 4, 1944)
Music: McAfee, by Cleland Boyd McAfee

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: I have seen another story behind this hymn in several books, one that differs in some details from what I have below. It has Cleland McAfee serving as a pastor in Chicago at the time of the tragedy, and writing the hymn so he could sing it as a solo at the funeral service. However, the following information comes largely from a book written by McAfee’s daughter Katharine (a book entitled Near to the Heart of God).

Mrs. Parker (McAfee’s married daughter) served on the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the National Council of Presbyterian Women. She authored a number of books. The one using the hymn’s title contains a sketch of Dr. McAfee’s active life, and other examples of his writing, as well as the background of the hymn. I have confidence that Katharine Parker would get the story right, especially given that many from her extended family were actively involved in events at the time, and would surely have shared their perspective with her.

Park College (now the esteemed Park University) was established in Parkville, Missouri, a city a few miles from Kansas City. It began as a Presbyterian school, but has since severed that connection. The founder and first President was John Armstrong McAfee. His five sons and his daughter were eventually all involved in the work of the college.

When the father died in 1890, his son Lowell became president, serving in that capacity until 1913. His brother Cleland was the college chaplain and music director during that period. The two roles of the latter man intersected in the church services of Park College, when Cleland McAfee commonly preached, and led the choir. It was his custom to write some music for the choir on each Communion Sunday, something that would also tie in with the theme of his sermon.

This was the state of things when the present hymn was written in 1901. But it was a double tragedy that provided its touching inspiration. The two daughters of Howard, another of the brothers, were critically ill with diphtheria. During the week before Communion Sunday, the two girls died within twenty-four hours of one another. Understandably, many on the campus and in the town were grief-stricken.

Cleland McAfee sat up long and late, pondering what he could preach on the following Sunday, and what kind of music he could compose to bring comfort to his family and the congregation. This lovely little hymn was the outcome of his meditation. The choir learned it at their regular Saturday evening practice. Then, they all went to the quarantined home of the Howard McAfee family, and sang the hymn beneath the darkened windows. It was shared with the congregation at the Communion Service, the next day.

In prophecy, the Lord is pictured as the Shepherd of His people who will “gather the lambs [the weak and vulnerable] with His arm, and carry them in His bosom,” near to His loving heart (Isa. 40:10-11). In the Gospels we read of the Lord Jesus’ tender affection for little children. “He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them” (Mk. 10:15-16).

Though we do not currently have the physical presence of the Lord with us, such images may come to mind when we read the text of this hymn. Or perhaps we’ll think of John reclining to the right of Jesus in the Upper Room, leaning on His bosom (Jn. `13:23). That, in fact, may have been part of Dr. McAfee’s inspiration, since it was the time of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and this fitted the service that coming Sunday in 1901.

All these passages remind us of the blessing of intimate fellowship with the Lord, where we, as believers, “will find rest for [our] souls” (Matt. 11:28-29). Close to the Lord, at times when our hearts are burdened, we find: “quiet rest,” and protection from sin’s allures (CH-1); “comfort sweet,” and fellowship with the Saviour (CH-2); “full release” (the freedom to share our burdens and our hurts, without fear of condemnation); as well as “joy and peace” (CH-3).

CH-1) There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God.
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.

O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before Thee
Near to the heart of God.

CH-3) There is a place of full release,
Near to the heart of God.
A place where all is joy and peace,
Near to the heart of God.

1) Can you think of a situation in which you found this kind of special blessing and encouragement in fellowship with the Lord?

2) What lessons have you learned in these special moments that have guided you through difficult other times?

The singing of our traditional hymns and gospel songs has declined in some churches, but this treasure deserves to be preserved. If you’re looking for ways to promote hymn singing in your church and community, take a look at the article 30 Ideas for Promoting Hymn Singing. (There are now more than fifty practical ideas there, as the list keeps growing!)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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