Words: Benjamin Russell Hanby (b. July 22, 1833; d. Mar. 16, 1867)
Music: Benjamin Russell Hanby
Note: This hymn was published in 1866, the year before Hanby’s death. Originally, each couplet was a stanza on its own, making ten of them. When he was editing the Worship and Service Hymnal (a fine mid-twentieth century hymn book, published in 1957), Donald Hustad decided to combine two couplets for each stanza, making five in all.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that, two years before he wrote his hymn, Mr. Hanby wrote the first ever song about Santa Claus! Sadly, now, each Christmas, there’s more about Santa going over the air waves than about the Lord Jesus. Hanby’s song begins:
Up on the housetop reindeer pause,
Out jumps good old Santa Claus,
Down through the chimney with lots of toys,
All for the good little girls and boys.
Ho, ho ho! Who wouldn’t go?
Ho, ho ho! Who wouldn’t go?
Up on the housetop, click, click, click
Down through the chimney with good Saint Nick.
A bit more about the Hanby family should be of interest. And another secular song by Benjamin Hanby will give you a something of a picture of the man.
Benjamin Hanby’s father, Bishop William Hanby (United Brethren in Christ) was active in the underground railway, as was his son. They sought to help enslaved African Americans to escape to freedom in the north, and up into Canada.
One of the son’s most famous songs was not this hymn, but a sad ballad called My Darling Nellie Gray. It told the true story of Nellie, the beloved of a slave named Joseph Selby (or Shelby). Joseph was a slave in Kentucky, but he heard that Nellie had been sold south into Georgia, where the treatment was notoriously harsher.
One night I went to see her but she’s gone, the neighbours say,
And the white man had bound her with his chain;
They have taken her to Georgia for to wear her life away,
As she toils in the cotton and the cane.
Oh, my darling Nellie Gray, they have taken you away
I’ll never see my darling anymore;
They have taken you to Georgia, for to work your life away,
And you’re gone from that old Kentucky shore.
Benjamin wrote the lyrics in 1856, and his sister composed the melody. Though it might be dismissed as merely a sentimental ballad, it does represent the heartbreak of slavery, and the song made it more real and poignant to all who heard and sang it. Bishop Handby was trying to raise money to buy Nellie’s freedom, and this music was a powerful weapon for that, and the fight against slavery in general.
Benjamin Hanby became a clergyman in the same denomination as his father. But he seems to have had some progressive ideas that alienated his denomination. He left the ministry and became more active in writing and publishing music. He died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-four.
Though his hymn is sometimes listed with Christmas carols, because of the first two lines, Who Is He in Yonder Stall? covers all of the life of Christ from His birth to His resurrection. Unfortunately, the tune is monotonously repetitious, since the melody of the first line is the same as that of the second–which means it gets repeated ten times!
To relieve the monotony, you might try having part of the congregation sing one line of a stanza, and another part of the congregation respond with the other. Then all could join in singing the chorus. It would also work to have two soloists sing the stanzas, and the congregation answer with the refrain.
The song is not without merit, in spite of this problem. It takes us through the life of Jesus and emphasizes His identity with the refrain. He is the Lord, “the King of glory,” worthy of our humble worship. Hanby’s repeated contrast of the pain and distress Christ suffered, with the love and kindness He showed to those around Him, is striking. This is even more stark and grievous when we are reminded over and over that this One is the Lord of glory.
CH-1) Who is He in yonder stall
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
Who is He in deep distress,
Fasting in the wilderness?
‘Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
‘Tis the Lord! the King of glory!
At His feet we humbly fall,
Crown Him! crown Him, Lord of all!
CH-4) Lo! at midnight, who is He
Prays in dark Gethsemane?
Who is He on yonder tree
Dies in grief and agony?
CH-5) Who is He that from the grave
Comes to succour, help, and save?
Who is He that from His throne
Rules through all the world alone?
1) What other hymns come to mind that contrast who the Lord Jesus is with the shameful way He was treated?
2) What other hymns can you think of that cover more than one period or aspect of the life of Christ?