I have recently been reading two books of hymn stories, 101 Hymn Stories and 101 More Hymn Stories, both by Kenneth W. Osbeck.
Osbeck (1924 – 2017), from Michigan USA, served as a minister of music in a number of churches in the Grand Rapids area, taught at Cornerstone University, and also wrote a dozen or so other books either about hymns or using hymns as a basis for devotional writings.
These two books, as you might expect, cover many of the most popular hymns and hymnwriters of the past several centuries. Martin Luther, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, Thomas Chisholm, William Cowper, Charlotte Elliott, Frances Havergal, John Newton, Horatio Spafford, and many more are featured, and each song is printed with its words and its most popular tune. A brief story of the composition of the song, together with notes on the author and on the composer of the music, are included.
I hope we all have a few inspirational song or hymn stories relating to some of our favourites. Spafford’s It Is Well With My Soul, for example, takes on a new depth of meaning when we know that he wrote it with the shipwreck deaths of his daughters in mind. And Amazing Grace, one of the most popular hymns of all, touches our hearts even more with the knowledge that its author, John Newton, was a reformed slave trader and anti-slavery campaigner.
And of course modern songs also have their stories. Perhaps most famous is the one involving 10,000 Reasons (Bless the Lord O My Soul), one of the most popular songs of the 21st century. In April 2015 eight drug traffickers were executed in an Indonesian prison. But during their many years in prison, seven of them had become Christians, transforming their lives and turning them into model citizens who worked to improve the lives of other prisoners. As they waited for the firing squad they sang the hymns Amazing Grace and 10,000 Reasons.
There are many stories in the books that I could mention, but I will just whet your appetite to read them with a quick note about the very first song Osbeck wrote about, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God by Martin Luther. It amazes me that this song is around 500 years old! It has been sung, originally in German and later in English and hundreds of other languages, by untold millions over half a millennium of church history. It comes from the turbulent period when the protestant reformers like Luther were breaking away from the corrupt Catholic church (of the time), and the song is full of references to spiritual warfare. It is also very clear that Jesus has and will have the complete victory over the devil and all his works.
Let goods and kindred goMartin Luther (translated by Frederick H. Hedge)
This mortal life also
The body they may kill
God’s truth abideth still
His kingdom is forever.