Though Baptists have been prominent among evangelical churches since the denomination originated in the early seventeenth century, Baptists have made surprisingly few contributions to hymnody.1One exception is nineteenth-century New York pastor Robert Lowry, who wrote several hundred hymn tunes and dozens of texts (among these, the best-known are songs like “Christ Arose” and … Continue reading To complicate the issue, one of the best-known hymns to come from Baptist circles is all but anonymous.
When John Rippon became pastor of Carter’s Lane Baptist Church in 1773, he came to a church with a long tradition of hymn singing. Around 1690, pastor Benjamin Keach introduced to Carter’s Lane2Then located in the Horsleydown area of London. the then-revolutionary practice of singing newly-written hymns in church services.3In an example of good Baptist polity, the practice was introduced after a congregational vote. Keach compiled at least two books of hymn texts during his lifetime, and Carter’s Lane became the pioneer among Particular Baptists in the area of hymn singing.
In 1787, John Rippon released a hymnal of his own, A Selection of Hymns, from the Best Authors, Intended to Be an Appendix to Dr. Watts’ Psalms and Hymns. As the title indicates, Rippon desired to add to the legacy of English hymnody established by Isaac Watts earlier in the century (which Benjamin Keach surely would have lauded as well). The hymnal sold well both in England and the United States, and helped to popularize hymns by such authors as William Cowper, Philip Doddridge, John Newton, and Charles Wesley. One hymn making its first appearance in this hymnal was listed under the title “Exceeding Great and Precious Promises.” With this allusion to 2 Peter 1:4, the text proceeds to outline some of the great and precious promises found in God’s Word:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you, who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
“For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
“I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
“Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
“The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
“For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
“And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
“My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
“The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
“Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
“Even down to old age all My people shall prove
“My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
“And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
“Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
“I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
“That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
“I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”
Who wrote this stunning and insightful text? In Rippon’s first edition, the author is listed simply as ‘K—.’ Some future editions said “Kn,” and in one case, “Keen.” Many solutions have been proposed, but perhaps the most probable is that Rippon’s precentor, or music director, Robert Keene was the one responsible for writing this hymn.
The anonymity of the text should point the reader not to the mystery of its authorship but instead to the lyrics of the hymn. Drawing on a variety of passages from both the Old and New Testaments, the words outline promises that God has made to His people. It might be asked whether all of the Old Testament promises still apply to New Testament Christians today. It’s not hard to find examples of people misappropriating promises to Israel for the Church. However, even though some of these passages4Albert Bailey helpfully lists the passages adapted for the hymn in The Gospel in Hymns, 140. were spoken originally to Israel, they all reflect universal truths about God’s care for His children across dispensations.
One example that illustrates this approach to the text is found in the last stanza. In Deuteronomy 31, God through Moses twice told the Israelites that “I will not leave you or forsake you.” He then repeated this promise to Joshua in Joshua 1:5. Though this promise has a specific application in its original context, the author of Hebrews applies this idea to his Church-age readership as well: “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb 13:5).
In the original Greek, piling up negative words intensifies the sense of meaning (as opposed to English, where a double negative indicates a positive). Hebrews 13:5 contains several words of negation, which can be difficult to render into English. Philip Doddridge, in his 17555Published posthumously and completed by John Orton. commentary on the Bible, gives this reading: “‘I will not, I will not leave thee, I will never, never, never forsake thee’” (The Family Expositor, 995). How would you put these five negatives into poetic form?
“I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”6Rippon’s hymnal contains an asterisk at this line, with a note reading “Agreeable to Dr. Doddridge’s Translation of Heb. xiii.5.”
What more can He say?
|1||One exception is nineteenth-century New York pastor Robert Lowry, who wrote several hundred hymn tunes and dozens of texts (among these, the best-known are songs like “Christ Arose” and “Nothing but the Blood”).|
|2||Then located in the Horsleydown area of London.|
|3||In an example of good Baptist polity, the practice was introduced after a congregational vote.|
|4||Albert Bailey helpfully lists the passages adapted for the hymn in The Gospel in Hymns, 140.|
|5||Published posthumously and completed by John Orton.|
|6||Rippon’s hymnal contains an asterisk at this line, with a note reading “Agreeable to Dr. Doddridge’s Translation of Heb. xiii.5.”|