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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Calling of the disciples inspires English hymn C. Michael Hawn, Mar 2, 2012
Cecil Frances Alexander
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Jesus Calls Us” Cecil Frances Alexander UM Hymnal, No. 398
Jesus calls us o’er the tumult Of our life’s wild restless sea; Day by day his sweet voice soundeth, Saying, “Christian, follow me!”
Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander was one of the most beloved hymn writers of the 19th century.
She was born Cecil Frances Humphreys in Redcross, County Wicklow, England in either 1818 or 1823, and died in Londonderry, Ireland in 1895. Her husband, William Alexander, was an Anglican rector who became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe in 1867 and, following her death, Archbishop and primate of all of Ireland.
Hymnologist Alfred Bailey captures the context of Mrs. Alexander’s hymns: “Before her marriage she had been a member of the Evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. That fact shows in her intense devotion to the religious education of children.”
She authored over 400 hymns, most of which were written for children, that were published in several collections including Hymns for Little Children (1848). Like many Christian women of this era, Mrs. Alexander was devoted to children’s religious education and she used hymns as a tool in the Christian education of children.
Mrs. Alexander gave much of her life to charitable work and social causes, something rare for women of her day. She founded a school for the deaf with her sister and, following the move to Ireland, established the Girls’ Friendly Society in Londonderry.
“Jesus Calls Us” is her best known hymn written for adults. It is one of the finest hymns on Christian discipleship and commitment, and was included in Hymns for Public Worship (1852) under the title “St. Andrew’s Day” (Nov. 30). The original second stanza, omitted now from many hymnals, begins with “As, of old, St. Andrew heard it by the Galilean lake.”
The text of this hymn is based on Matthew 4:18-20, a passage that focuses on the calling of the fishermen Andrew and Peter. Stanza two paints a picture in our mind of the calling of the disciples “by the Galilean lake.” The sacrifice that they made is clearly stated: The disciples “turned from home and toil and kindred, leaving all for Jesus’ sake.”
As in a classic expositional sermon, the hymn writer provides the biblical context and then applies the biblical example to our lives in the remaining three stanzas. We are called to turn from “the worship of the vain world’s golden store” and “any idol that would keep us” (stanza three).
Like the disciples, our lives will be full of “joys . . . and . . . sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease.” Regardless of our circumstances, be they days of “cares [or] pleasures,” “still he calls us” (stanza four).
The hymn is a clear, concise narrative of this account. Most stanzas conclude with Christ inviting a response of his followers past and present—“Christian, follow me”; “Christian, love me more”; “Christian, love me more than these.” The hymn writer encourages the hymn singer to make a commitment in the final stanza, what Albert Bailey calls “A prayer that we may hear the call and make it our heart’s desire to be loyal to the Saviour”:
Jesus calls us! By thy mercies, Savior may we hear thy call, give our hearts to Thine obedience, serve and love Thee best of all.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.