Posted by: rcottrill | July 18, 2016

Life’s Railway to Heaven

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Words: M. E. Abbey (no data available; see note below)
Music: Charles Davis Tillman (b. Mar. 20, 1861; d. Sept. 2, 1943)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: There’s some uncertainty about the origin of this song. M. E. Abbey, a Baptist pastor in Georgia at the time, is credited with the words–at least of the refrain. And singing evangelist and music publisher Charles Davis Tillman composed the tune. Whether that is the full story is open to question.

Some suggest that Eliza Roxcy Snow Young (1804-1887), the polygamous wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young, may have supplied some of the text, but I’ve seen no conclusive evidence of that. Charles Tillman set one of Eliza Young’s poems (Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses) to the tune used later for the present hymn. The words by Young are completely different from those of the Railway Song, except that Abbey’s refrain is used in it. That may account for the confusion. Perhaps M. E. Abbey wrote the whole text of the railway song.

Fictional movie character Forrest Gump said it: “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” It’s an apt description, at least of one aspect of our lives. The way unexpected things can happen to us.

Many others have tried to sum life up: “Life is like a mirror. If you frown at it, it frowns back. If you smile, it returns the greeting.” Or, “Life is like walking through snow. Every step shows.” Or, how about, “Life is like an eraser. It gets smaller and smaller after every mistake.” Then there’s, “Life is like a bar of soap. Once you think you’ve got a hold of it, it slips away.” Or, “Life is like a hot bath. It feels good while you’re in it, but the longer you stay in the more wrinkled you get.”

In the Bible, the emphasis in poetic descriptions of life is often focused on its brevity. Even when an individual lives eighty or ninety years, or perhaps beyond that, what is that span in comparison to eternity? “What is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (Jas. 4:14).

Others speak in a similar vein. Life is like: a flash flood, a short sleep, grass that sprouts and is quickly mowed down (Ps. 90:5-6), and like drifting smoke (Ps. 102:3). Job, in particular, in the midst of what seems almost unparalleled suffering, used a number of graphic metaphors. Life is like: a swift weaver’s shuttle (Job 7:6), a breath (7:7), a cloud that vanishes away (7:9), a speedy runner (9:25), a swift ship, a swooping eagle (9:36), a fading flower, and a passing shadow (14:2).

A more positive analogy is used frequently in both Old Testament and New. The life of the believer is said to be a pilgrimage. Even though it may seem long and painful, it’s brief in terms of eternity. It’s a time-limited journey through this sinful world, where we are aliens pilgrims, traveling on to our true and final home in heaven.

“Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims [aliens and temporary residents], abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul, having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles [the unsaved]” (I Pet. 2:11-12; cf. Ps. 39:12; 119:19).

An interesting take on the pilgrimage imagery is found in the gospel song Life’s Railway to Heaven. Published in 1890, it describes the Christian life as a journey on a railroad, a trip that requires courage, and alertness to danger, as we travel toward our destination.

The song has been much recorded, even by secular artists. There’s no rich doctrinal content or deep devotional thought here. But even so, the lyrics are interesting, and no doubt have special meaning for those familiar with railroad jargon.

CH-1) Life is like a mountain railroad,
With an Engineer that’s brave;
We must make the run successful,
From the cradle to the grave;
Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels;
Never falter, never quail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle,
And your eye upon the rail.

Blessed Saviour, Thou wilt guide us,
Till we reach that blissful shore;
Where the angels wait to join us
In Thy praise forevermore.

CH-2) You will roll up grades of trial;
You will cross the bridge of strife;
See that Christ is your conductor
On this lightning train of life;
Always mindful of obstruction,
Do your duty, never fail;
Keep your hand upon the throttle,
And your eye upon the rail.

1) What are some good things and bad things about a train trip that could illustrate life?

2) Is there enough Bible truth in this song that you would use it with a congregation?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. We have many freight trains come through our small city, but no passenger trains. The song sorta loses meaning if one has not ridden on a train.

    • I’m an old guy, and can remember train rides. Also, there are lots of old movies that feature passenger trains. But you have a point. Even the sprinkling of technical jargon isn’t known to most.

  2. That is a good point that she made. I suppose what makes some hymns so beloved and enduring is that they don’t focus on changeable earthly things to the point where eternal truths are lost. Though there are many people who still use public transit and some of this would apply.

    That said, I am thankful that the Lord is the conductor and that it is He who is conveying me to my destination. I can’t keep myself on the rails, but He can!

  3. Eliza R Snow (she didn’t go by the last name of Young) was a notable poet, but she definitely didn’t write “Life’s Railway” and probably didn’t write “Truth Reflects Upon Our Senses” either.

    “Truth Reflects” has its first known appearance in the 1841 LDS hymnal, which she contributed several hymns to. That hymnal has lyrics only and we don’t know what tunes it was sung to then. The text appears in a couple of Protestant hymnals in the 1860s under the title “The mote and beam,” attributed to one “S.H.”, and historians speculate there was a common source rather than direct use of the LDS hymnal. People appear to have first attributed “Truth Reflects” to her in the 1890s. I don’t find any source for the claim she wrote “Life’s Railway” other than internet rumors.

    If you have any source for your claim that _Tillman_ put “Truth Reflects” to his tune, I’d be glad to know of it. The best guess I have is that it was the editors of the LDS 1909 Sunday School song book who first connected the two; that book explicitly says ‘Tune: “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” Used by permission of Charlie D. Tillman, owner of copyright.’ ‘Life’s Railway’ had been circulating with this tune for 13 years by that point.

    • Thanks for your input. The vague and uncertain stories about the origins of this song are the reason I didn’t state this dogmatically. Phil Kerr, the author of Music in Evangelism, visited Tillman in 1940. Tillman told him, “Some fifty years ago, here in Atlanta, an old Baptist preacher, M. E. Abbey, came to me with a poem. I took the poem to my room, placed it on the organ in front of me. The melody came quickly. We dedicated it to railroad men everywhere.” (And I’ll say here that I’ve usually found Kerr’s research reliable.)

      It’s notable that Tillman does not say explicitly that Abbey wrote the words, only that he brought them to Tillman. Another story entirely is found here–which the author admits he could not authenticate.

      Your sourcing to a song/peom by William Shakespeare Hays is interesting. It’s possible this song has evolved over the years, as many folk songs do, and that various ones contributed to it. lists over twenty publications of the song in a variety of hymn books dating back to 1896. I see it’s also in Favorites Number 5 (published in 1961), and the Country & Western Gospel Hymnal (published in 1972). All of these credit M. E. Abbey (words) and Charles Tillman (tune)–though strangely, in their lead-in page here, gives first credit to Eliza R. Snow.

      Again, thanks for your input. God bless.

      • That Kerr Tillman quote is helpful and it settles to my satisfaction that “Life’s Railway” was the text the tune was composed to match rather than something fit to the tune afterwards.

        I contacted Hymnary and CyberHymnal with some citations and evidence, and they both changed the lyrics credit to ME Abbey, so I hope the rumor dies down. I also found a good online source for the Hays poem (p. 44).

        Thanks for your response, and best wishes with your blog and musical efforts!

  4. One more thing – a little more sleuthing led to a poem by William Shakespeare Hays- “Life is like a crooked railroad, with an engineer that’s brave” – which definitely predates Abbey and Tillman by decades and must be the source Abbey drew on.


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