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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Stirring ‘Promises’ serves as popular crusade hymn C. Michael Hawn, May 4, 2011
R. Kelso Carter
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Standing on the Promises” R. Kelso Carter UM Hymnal, No. 374
Standing on the promises of Christ my King, Through eternal ages let his praises ring; Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing, Standing on the promises of God.
Russell Kelso Carter (1849-1928) was a man of diverse interests and abilities. A native of Baltimore, Md., Carter was known as an outstanding athlete in his younger days. The Methodist Holiness camp meeting movement had a profound impact on his life and he was ordained into ministry in 1887.
Carter held a number of teaching posts at the Pennsylvania Military Academy including professor of chemistry, natural science, civil engineering and mathematics. Not only did he teach, but he also published text books in his various disciplines and even authored several novels. Other interests included sheep-raising and practicing medicine.
If this were not enough, Carter also edited hymnals. He assisted A.B. Simpson in the compilation of a hymnal for the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, Hymns of the Christian Life (1891), a collection that contained 68 of his tunes and 52 of his texts.
“Standing on the Promises” was composed in 1886 while Carter was teaching at the military academy. He was a member of the first graduating class in 1867 and had a strong affinity for the school. Author Phil Kerr makes a connection between the music and the military academy in his book, Music in Evangelism, stating that Carter’s military experience was reflected in the martial musical style of the hymn.
Published the year it was written in the collection, Songs of Perfect Love, edited by John K. Sweeny and Carter, the original text had five stanzas. The missing stanza reads:
Standing on the promises I now can see Perfect, present cleansing in the blood for me; Standing in the liberty where Christ makes free, Standing on the promises of God.
The second line of this stanza has a particular Wesleyan tone with its focus on perfection and cleansing blood. The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes: “As in other single-theme evangelical hymns and songs of this period, the biblical source of the hymn is not clear. ‘Stand firm’ from Ephesians 6:14 has often been cited as the theme of the hymn, although the word ‘promise’ tends to be reinforced as well.”
Thus, two passages of Scripture seem to undergird the central premise of this gospel song: “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place. . . .” (Ephesians 6:14). Several passages relate to the promises of God including 2 Samuel 22:31: “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is tried; he is a buckler to all them that trust in him.”
Dr. Young points out that this hymn was not included in authorized hymnals for Methodists (or in the 1957 hymnal of the Evangelical United Brethren Church) until the current hymnal. He states, “Its place in our hymnal came from its inclusion in a list of hymns determined to be widely used by evangelical United Methodists.”
As is the case of many gospel songs, this song revolves around its refrain. The stanzas, rather than serving to develop a sequential train of thought, are more like the spokes of a bicycle—all serving as an entry point to the refrain from various perspectives. One could reorder the stanzas and not lose any train of thought.
Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck places the hymn in its context: “The hymn has been widely used in the great evangelistic crusades throughout the past century.” It is in this context that its single focus and rousing, martial music may be best suited.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.