Reading 3.1

Rediscovering the Music of A. B. Simpson*

Eugene Rivard


"ALBERT B. SIMPSON'S HYMNS ARE UNSINGABLE!" is an opinion shared by many members of the Christian and Missionary Alliance today. Forty-four of his songs are included in the present Hymns of the Christian Life but are rarely used in congregational singing. Why have they fallen into disuse? Were they always considered "unfit" to sing? Is the Alliance losing a legacy of its founder, or is it merely allowing substandard hymnody to die a natural death?

A contemporary Alliance church-goer might well wonder if Simpson's hymns were regarded with the same general disdain during his lifetime. If this were the case, it would be difficult to understand why any were included in the following edition of the society's hymnal. Were they retained solely for the depth, intensity and call for Christian commitment in their lyrics?

The hymns do effectively reflect the distinctive theology of Simpson and the Alliance: the Spirit-filled deeper life, world evangelization, and the gospel of Christ as Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King. This is no coincidence, since the songs were often the poetic essence of a poignant writing or an impassioned sermon. Moreover, the early publications of the Alliance and the writing of Simpson's contemporaries indicate that his songs were held in great favor. Not only were they eagerly received, but they became dear to the hearts of those who sang them and carried them throughout the world.

The Gospel Song

The "gospel song" was the form of music most closely associated with the revivals and evangelistic meetings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is, therefore, not surprising that A.B. Simpson employed it (and with great success) as his own musical medium. The gospel song differs from the traditional church anthem with its focus on the individual, its lively rhythms and tuneful, easily-remembered refrains. In addition, unlike the hymn, it is intensely personal and immediate in nature, and is often written in the first person as a testimony.

Since Simpson was, above all, an evangelist, he stressed the need of the individual to respond to the will of God and saw the gospel song as an ideal means of calling sinners to repentance, educating them in sound doctrine, deepening their life in the Spirit and challenging them to live in a Christ-like manner. He also considered the gospel song as the best means of expressing his own love for Jesus Christ in music.

"What ministry today has been more honored than gospel song?" he wrote. "How God has shown in a Bliss, Sankey or a Phillips, the honor He still will put on this simple taste to draw millions by the power of the consecrated melody of the gospel!"1  A.W. Tozer wrote of early Simpson meetings where the "popular" gospel song was used:

...they joined in mass singing of old time church favorites and the recent Gospel Songs, composed by Sankey, Bliss, Crosby and others of the gospel musicians of the day. Popular? Sure, it was popular and it was frowned upon by many of the sterile scribes of the synagogues, but to Mr. Simpson, the word "popular" carried no terrors. It meant "of the people" and it was people he was interested the singing went on and the crowds loved it and kept coming back week after week to enjoy it.2  

Despite his preference for the gospel song (for largely pragmatic reasons), Simpson never disparaged traditional hymnody because his Scottish Presbyterian upbringing had given him a deep appreciation for its richness. Indeed, in his preface to the first edition of Hymns of the Christian Life (1891), he cautioned against going to the extreme of "relegating all the old hymns to the dusty past."3 The first Alliance hymnal included many such hymns, with Simpson's gospel songs serving as a contemporary supplement to them.

The Music of the Simpson Songs

Simpson's musical background was not extensive. Although he attempted to learn the violin as a youth, he was unsuccessful and never learned more than to pick out a melody on the piano with one finger. Others provided the harmony. In spite of this, he composed many of the melodies for his own hymns, an unusual accomplishment for hymn-writers of the day. Of the forty-one hymns that bear his name in the first Hymns of the Christian Life, he is credited with the music for thirty-two. Of the 162 hymns credited to Simpson in the seven editions of Hymns of the Christian Life, fully 119 were set to music of his own writing.

Always a poet, he began writing hymns while a pastor at the Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, from 1873 to 1879. He made no pretence of being a composer of stature, as his unpolished melodies readily confirm. They reveal, rather, an intense involvement with other business, as well as an urgency that did not allow for careful revision. Later in his career, Simpson relegated the melody writing to others, including his daughter, Margaret. By that time, the first hymn tunes had become so closely associated with the Alliance that they could never be changed. Often his daughter was called at the spur of the moment to help him with a song. Long after his death, she recalled some of the songwriting methods her father had used:

...he used to call me often and say, 'I have a message for you for my sermon tomorrow. Meet me at the piano soon.'...there we labored together till he was satisfied it carried his inspiration. Sometimes he would say, 'Here, take this. I can't do a thing with it, but this is what I want.' And where it was crescendo [loud], he would demonstrate it by singing out loudly enough to be heard down the hill, with obvious punctuations and emphasis. When you grasped his idea, he would glow with ecstasy and say, 'You've got it, there, that's fine.'4

Several songwriters were used to set his texts to music. J. H. Burke, Minister of Music at the New York Gospel Tabernacle from 1889-1891, is credited with many melodies for Simpson's words, including his best-known lyric, "Yesterday, Today, Forever." Others included the Methodist teacher/author Captain Russell Kelso Carter, co-editor of the first Alliance hymnal and an associate of Simpson in the conventions and at the Gospel Tabernacle; James Kirk, a member of the "Ohio Quartet" which sang at the Old Orchard (Maine) missionary conventions; Louise Shepherd, soloist at Old Orchard and member of the Missionary Training Institute faculty from 1897-1899; May Agnew Stephens, pianist and songleader of the Gospel Tabernacle; Winfred Macomber, Missionary Training Institute graduate and missionary to the Congo; and George Stebbins, associate of Moody and Sankey, who was commissioned to set some of Simpson's poetry to music for the 1936 hymnal.

Musical Difficulties

There is no doubt that some of the music to which Simpson's hymns were set, whether written by himself or others, was difficult to sing. The early Alliance overlooked these problems and probably developed their own traditional ways of rendering the songs. Later generations were not as generous.

Perhaps the most widely quoted critic of Simpson's hymns was A.W. Tozer, who wrote, " is in the music that his songs suffer the most. A few of his compositions can be sung, but the most of them can be negotiated by none except trained singers."5 While Dr. Tozer's credentials as a music critic have been questioned, it is true that some of the tunes present irksome rhythmical and melodic problems.

For a hymn to be sung well by a congregation, several musical factors need to be considered. First, the range cannot be too great, as the average church-goer cannot generally sustain high pitches for long. Second, the rhythms of the melody must match the rhythms of the words. The phrases must be balanced and stressed syllables fall on the stressed beats (ex. "O God our help in ages past"). The words cannot have too many syllables if they are to lend themselves well to simple melodies. Third, the melody must be tuneful with few large jumps, easily remembered without being trite. Fourth, the hymn cannot be too long, and finally, the music must express the mood of the text. Hymn-writers are well aware of the intense amount of work needed to fulfil these requirements. Furthermore (in common evangelical performance practice), all four parts are usually sung, making good harmony another musical consideration. If the music has problems in any of these areas, the congregation will have difficulty singing, no matter how profound the words may be.

The music of some of Simpson's hymns fell short in one or more of these areas. Attempts were made to revise and re-harmonize much of the original music of his songs in the 1936, 1962 and 1978 Alliance hymnals, but some of the tunes still require complete rewriting to become more acceptable to today's musical tastes. Only the Simpson hymns in the latest (1978) hymnal were considered in the analysis that follows, because the others are not widely used today. All numbers shown are from this hymnal. Not all have great difficulties. "Thy Kingdom Come" (472), "I Take, He Undertakes" (290), and "Step By Step" (349) are as "singable" as any of the tunes of other 19th Century songwriters. Other Simpson tunes, while not great music, can prove, with repeated use, to be as acceptable as that of any gospel song. Alterations as simple as lowering the key have saved some songs from oblivion. "I Take, He Undertakes," among others, has been lowered since its original appearance in 1891.

Rhythmic and metrical problems mar some of Simpson's hymns. Gospel songs characteristically contain a great number of words in a verse and have a quick tempo, making it imperative that the syllables match the rhythm of the tune. "The Joy of the Lord" (280) is one of the most popular and triumphant hymns in the Alliance tradition, but many congregations will trip when they get to the middle of the third verse--"like the nightingale's notes it can sing in the darkness." This beautiful imagery is lost when "the" receives a stressed beat rather than the more open and important syllable "night" in "nightingale."

"Launch Out" (259) challenges believers to experience the supernatural provision of God if they will only step out in His name. However, many congregations will find it difficult to sing the words in measure three: "boundless and fathomless" because the musical rhythm does not logically follow the natural rhythm of the words. As a result, the instrumentalist will be playing something other than that which the congregation is singing, and unless practised, the congregation will stumble. Even such small problems may cause a congregation to quickly judge a hymn "unsingable."

"I Will Say Yes to Jesus" (217) expresses unreserved consecration to Christ, but the first verse is very difficult to sing because of its rhythmic discrepancies. The opening two measures are in fine rhythmic agreement, but when the words "oft it was no before" are sung, it is obvious that "oft" should have been placed on a strong beat rather than "it," and that perhaps "oft it was no" should have matched the rhythm of "I will say yes" in the first measure. This discrepancy not only causes a "hitch," but is followed too quickly by the next phrase, giving the congregation and songleader no chance to recover. In fact, the entire first verse allows the singer no opportunity to recover because it is so filled with words that the singer can hardly take a breath. Moreover, the syncopated rhythm of the melody on "ever" of "whatever" at the verse's end, constitutes an unexpected and illogical break in the rhythmic pattern and provides yet another stumbling block. A loyal congregation with a strong songleader could sing this song effectively with much repetition, but most will not try a second time.

Rhythmic problems and forgettable melodies certainly characterize Simpson's lesser-known hymns, but his well-known ones present some phrasing problems as well. "Search Me O God" (239) is a beautiful hymn of consecration, but the chorus has two measures too many. The entire song consists of a pattern of balanced four measure phrases, but ends on an unbalanced phrase of six measures that requires an unusual hold on the "away" of "cannot pass away." Such lack of balance invariably makes the congregation feel ill at ease because they can sense the lack of synchronization between the lyric and the melody. "Christ in Me" (166) is a tremendous statement of love for Jesus Christ and a testimony to the joy and hope that Christ is to us, but the melody on the refrain rambles without a clear musical or poetic phrase, and seems to end twice before the final measure.

Here it must be mentioned that although Simpson's gospel songs contain potentially life-changing truth, they are often too long. Most of the hymns in an average hymnal take three minutes or less to sing. Some of Simpson's compositions take five minutes or more, thereby straining an untrained voice, especially when the songleader urges the people to "sing out" all the way through. The songleader must therefore lead judiciously, leaving out the refrain at the end of one or more verses or using other creative means to avoid vocal strain on the part of the congregation.

The final consideration in this condensed musical critique concerns the style of Simpson's music. Simpson wrote almost all of his in march style, as did most contemporary gospel song writers. Simpson found this style well-suited to the intention of the missionary society, viz. to march throughout the world with the "banner of Christ held high." In an age of nationalism and imperialism, the imagery of war, battle and victory was easily understood and spiritualized. Titles like "I Have Overcome," "Be True," "Go and Tell," "Go Forward," "Fill up the Ranks," "Jesus Giveth Us the Victory," "March On," "Christ is Conqueror," "Hallelujah," "Burn On," "Launch Out," "To The Regions Beyond," and "Send the Gospel Faster," were set to suitably aggressive music. Even the hymns that told of the person of Christ or the Deeper Life were set to melodies with march-like beats. "Himself," "The Joy of the Lord," "Jesus Only," "I Will Say Yes to Jesus," "I Want To Be Holy," were all written to stimulate rather than to soothe.

A.W. Tozer attributed most of this aggressive style to Simpson's close musical associate, R. Kelso Carter. He wrote that Carter's tunes, "while marked with traces of superior gift, were nevertheless too militant and boisterous for the average Christian to enjoy."6  J. H. Burke could be accused of the same thing. He is responsible for the most disastrous combination of music and words in the present hymnal, "A Missionary Cry," which is the theme song of the Alliance. Although the lyrics express the deepest and most solemn desire of Simpson's heart, the melody is in a major key and is as lively and happy as any Disneyland march. The song begins with the words,

"A hundred thousand souls a day
are passing one by one away"

but by the time the singer reaches the refrain

"they're passing to their doom"

it sounds more like joyous proclamation than solemn reflection. Militant themes and march-like tunes have gone out of fashion and do not appear in the works of today's peace-conscious songwriters, all of which suggests that the melodies of a bygone era may be a hindrance to using Simpson's compositions effectively in the church of the late twentieth century.

The Words of Simpson's Gospel Songs

Despite musical and stylistic problems associated with A.B. Simpson's gospel songs, many Alliance members grew up singing them and found them uplifting. One of these was A.W. Tozer, who at the end of his critique of Simpson's music, writes:

After saying all this, I would yet confess that hardly a day goes by that I do not kneel and sing in a shaky baritone comfortably off key, the songs of Simpson. They feed my heart and express my longing, and I can find no other's songs that do this in as full a measure. While not many have gained wide popularity it is my sober judgement that Simpson has put into a few of his songs more of awful longing, of tender love, of radiant trust, of hope and worshp and triumph than can be found in all the popular gospel songs of the last hundred years put together. Those songs are simply not to be compared with his. Simpson's songs savor of the Holy of Holies, the outstretched wings of the cherubim and Shekinah glory. The others speak of the outer court and milling crowd.7

One can catch the vision of A.B. Simpson, his honesty, depth and fervor for Christ in the words of his hymns. "The essence of Simpson's hymns is not in the music but in the words,"8 Tozer wrote.

Most of Simpson's hymn texts are actually outlines of sermons he had preached, or condensed thoughts from articles he had written. His congregation would sing these hymns before or after he preached the sermons which inspired them, thereby reinforcing the points he had made. Simpson was a powerful preacher, eloquent in style and delivery, and he used poetry well in his sermons. His poetry grew out of a writing style that often began in point form, much like a sermon. He would make an opening statement and begin to expound upon it, ever building in intensity, expanding and developing a thought or scriptural truth until it "overflowed" into a more concentrated and expressive means of communication: poetic verse. The verse he chose would be the logical culmination of the thought. The pamphlet "Himself"9 is an example of this style of writing as well as the "Joyful Life" chapter of his book, A Larger Christian Life.10 "The Joy of the Lord" is the distillation of this chapter [actually a sermon] and verses from the hymn are quoted throughout it.

Simpson's hymns expressed the deepest desires of his heart. May Agnew Stephens wrote about this in her memorial tribute:

He was a prolific writer of hymns but none were [sic] mechanical. They all came from a hidden fire and bore a definite message. And none ever satisfied him unless they expressed the full scope of the fourfold gospel. Especially the hope of the return of our Lord he felt must be added to every hymn of salvation or service, if at all possible, and he often commented on the failure of many a gospel song to carry its message to the highest point--the coming of Christ.11

Simpson had not always used music extensively in his services. He first became convinced of the effectiveness of using music as an evangelistic tool in 1894, when he was pastor of the Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, a city still divided from the American Civil War. He joined with other local pastors in inviting evangelist Major Daniel Whittle and gospel singer Phillip Bliss to hold a campaign in their city. The singing of Bliss "convinced Mr. Simpson of the wisdom of giving a large place to the ministry of song, and in all his subsequent work, not only chorus and congregational singing, but solos were special features."12

Bliss influenced evangelist D.L. Moody in the same way: "...according to their mutual friend, D.W. Whittle, Bliss crystallized Moody's sense of the power of singing in gospel work."13 Gospel music was meant to stir people, convict them of sin, show them the beauty of Jesus, invite them to receive Him as Saviour and praise Him with full voice. Many people were moved more by the music than the preaching, and those whom the preaching convicted, the music moved to action.

As far as the subject matter is concerned, the most distinctive of Simpson's hymns treat the Fourfold Gospel, the deeper Spirit-filled life, divine healing and world missions.

The Fourfold Gospel is encapsulated effectively in the hymn "Jesus Only." This hymn is instructive as well as devotional, and was used to teach the new Alliance that Jesus is Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King. "Jesus Only" reveals Simpson's deep personal love for Christ as well. The title may have been derived from the opening statement delivered at his first sermon in the Chestnut Street Church in December, 1873.

In coming among you, I am not ashamed to own this as the aim of ministry and to take these words as the motto and keynote of my future preaching: 'Jesus only.'14

The same hymn was printed in its entirety on the front cover of the special memorial issue of the Alliance Weekly shortly after his death in 1919. "Jesus Only" truly was the motto of A.B. Simpson's life.

  1. Jesus only is our message,
    Jesus all our theme shall be.
    We will lift up Jesus ever,
    Jesus only will we see.
  2. Jesus only is our Saviour,
    all our guilt He bore away.
    All our righteousness He gives us,
    all our strength from day to day.
  3. Jesus only is our Sanctifier,
    cleansing us from self and sin.
    And with all His Spirit's fullness,
    filling all our hearts within.
  4. Jesus only is our Healer,
    all our sicknesses He bears
    and His risen life and fullness,
    all His members still may share.
  5. Jesus only is our power,
    He the gift of Pentecost.
    Jesus, breathe Thy power upon us,
    fill us with the Holy Ghost.
  6. And for Jesus we are waiting,
    listening for the Advent call;
    But 'twill still be Jesus only,
    Jesus ever, all in all.
Jesus only, Jesus ever,
Jesus all in all we sing;
Saviour, Sanctifier and Healer,
Glorious Lord and Coming King.

"Jesus Only" was included in the very first Alliance hymnal in 1891 and remains one of the most distinctive songs of the denomination.

"Himself" is the other Simpson hymn that encompasses the theology of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Although Simpson wrote many books and articles, and preached fervently on each truth contained in "Himself" and "Jesus Only," it was through singing that the Alliance affirmed, memorized and endeared them to their hearts. The tract "Himself" contained the entire song at its conclusion. Both song and tract were broadly distributed and Simpson reported in an editorial on October 6, 1893, that on his recent world tour, "the hymn 'Himself'" was met with by its author in almost all of the countries he visited, and was being sung in the languages and homes of those heathen people."15 A further testimony to this hymn's popularity can be seen in an incident recalled by May Agnew Stephens:

At the Old Orchard Convention many years ago, the convention soloist sang a number of times from manuscript: 'Once it was the blessing, now it is the Lord," etc. In the audiences sat a clever pirate, pencil in hand, and before the convention was over, it had been taken down and printed unknown to Dr. Simpson and was being sold; and it was with some difficulty rescued from its unlawful promoter.16

Its message is direct and appealing:

  1. Once it was the blessing, now it is the Lord;
    Once it was the feeling, now it is His Word;
    Once His gift I wanted, now the Giver own;
    Once I sought for healing, now Himself alone.
  2. Once 'twas painful trying, now 'tis perfect trust;
    Once a half salvation, now the uttermost!
    Once 'twas ceaseless holding, now He holds me fast;
    Once 'twas constant drifting, now my anchor's cast.

After three more verses, the refrain echoes the same sentiments as "Jesus Only":

All in all forever, Jesus will I sing,
Everything in Jesus, and Jesus everything.

Lyrics of a general and inoffensive style certainly do not characterize Simpson's songs. He assumed that those who sang his songs desired the deeper Spirit-filled life as much as he, and that by singing them, the singers would be able to testify to that desire. Who could sing the words to "Burn On!" without meaning them?

  1. O fire of God begin in me,
    Burn out the dross of self and sin.
    Burn off my fetters, set me free,
    And make my heart a heav'n within.
  2. Burn in, O fire of God, burn in,
    Till all my soul Christ's image bears
    And every power and pulse within,
    His holy heavenly nature wears.

"Breathing Out and Breathing In" uses the graphic imagery of the Holy Spirit as the very life-sustaining air we breathe, necessary for existence:

  1. Jesus breathe Thy Spirit on me,
    teach me how to breathe Thee in.
    Help me pour into Thy bosom
    all my life of self and sin.
    I am breathing out my own life,
    that I may be filled with Thine,
    Letting go my strength and weakness,
    breathing in Thy life divine.

These are not vague or superficial requests. One of the distinctives of Simpson hymns is that they require action, not mere intellectual assent. "I Will Say Yes to Jesus" is no hymn for the uncommitted Christian:

  1. I will say "yes" to Jesus,
    oft it was "no" before,
    As He knocked at my heart's proud entrance
    And I firmly barred the door.
    But I've made a complete surrender
    and given Him right of way,
    And henceforth it is always "yes"
    Whatever He may say.
  2. I will say "yes" to Jesus
    to all that He commands;
    I will hasten to do His bidding
    with willing heart and hands,
    I will listen to hear His whispers
    and learn His will each day,
    And always gladly answer "yes"
    Whatever He may say.

Other hymns appearing in the early hymnals had an urgency that told of Simpson's own burning desire to deepen his life in Christ, growing and making himself available for God's service. "Anywhere Everywhere," "I Want To Be Holy" and "Search Me, O God" are hymns requiring action and deep commitment.

Many of Simpson's hymns were written to encourage believers already living the deeper life. "Burn On" was one of the several hymns written especially for Nyack Missionary Training Institute graduates, calling on the "fire of God" to cleanse and prepare them for service. "Be True" was the first of these graduation hymns, written for the 1894 class in the "call and answer" style:

  1. We are going forth from the school of Jesus,
    we have sat at His blessed feet;
    We have drunk from truth's celestial fountain,
    we have tasted its honey sweet.
    We are witnesses for our blessed Master
    in a world where friends are few;
    And He sends us forth with the watchword holy,
    whatsoever it costs, be true.
Be true (We'll be true) Be true (We'll be true)
Let the holy watchword ring,
Be true (We'll be true) Be true (We'll be true)
Be true to your glorious King.
Be true (We'll be true) Be true (We'll be true)
Whether friends be false or few.
Whatsoever betide ever at His side
Let Him always find you true.

Simpson's songs of healing are no less lacking in intensity or commitment. He desired to help other Christians to realize the same truth he had experienced, and was sorrowed at the rejection of this trust by some and the inability of others to step out and claim Christ's healing by faith. The hymn with the most pathos in this regard is "Stretch Forth Thy Hand." It is a hymn that exhorts believers to exercise faith, to reach out and touch Jesus as the sick did in His day:

  1. When Christ of old with healing power
    Went forth through all the suffering land
    His word so oft was wont to be
    "Stretch forth thy hand, stretch forth thy hand."
    And though the palsied arm might shrink
    And tremble at the strange command
    The healing touch was only felt
    While stretching forth the withered hand.
O suffering one, stretch forth your hand
Upon His promise take your stand
At His command stretch forth your hand
And Christ shall make you whole.

Although many of Simpson's hymns are testimonial in nature, he intended them to be instructive as well. "Step By Step," "Only Wait," "The Joy of the Lord," "Power From on High" and "My Grace Is Sufficient for Thee" are all examples of songs of faith meant to instruct believers in their walk with Christ. Though the words of exhortation could be fiery, they could also be tender.

Simpson believed the Christian had been saved to live life in obedience to God, an obedience that would issue in the spreading of the gospel to the world. He deeply desired the Lord's second coming and was convinced that Jesus would not come again until the world had first heard the gospel (Mark 13:10). His greatest ambition was to spread that gospel so that the Lord would return. The first and sixth verse of "Go and Tell Them" (1978 hymnal) carries this message:

1.  Send the Gospel of salvation
     To a world of dying men,
     Tell it out to every nation
     Till the Lord shall come again.
6.  Give the gospel as a witness
    To a world of sinful men,
    Till the Bride shall be completed,
    And the Lord shall come again.

The third verse of "A Missionary Cry" expresses his vision with the same urgency:

The Master's coming draweth near;
The Son of Man will soon appear;
His Kingdom is at hand.
But ere that glorious day can be,
The gospel of the kingdom we
Must preach in every land,
Must preach in every land.

He wrote missionary songs to inspire those at home and to encourage those abroad. Hymns about exotic places like "The Dark Soudan," "Beautiful Japan," "In the Land of the Congo" endeavored to impart his vision for the millions who were without a Saviour in those foreign lands. "Go and Tell Them," "Who Will Go?," "To the Regions Beyond," "Send the Gospel Faster" were sung with great zeal by the early Alliance. In February, 1889, writing on the subject of missions, Simpson declared:

One hundred thousand souls are dying without Christ every twenty-four hours in heathen lands. What are we doing to save them? American Christians are giving on an average, one cent a week for mission and sending one Christian in every ten thousand to save them.17

A short while later, this declaration became a hymn, "A Missionary Cry":

1.  One hundred thousand souls a day
      Are passing one by one away,
      In Christless guilt and gloom.
5.  ...O Church of Christ what wilt thou say
     When in the awful judgment day
     They charge thee with their doom?

"A Missionary Cry" was possibly the first hymn Simpson ever wrote.18 He wrote it while still in Louisville, but its first publication was delayed until 1891, when his new Hymns of the Christian Life was published. He wrote it with the intention of stirring believers to action, rather than soothing their consciences and his intention was fulfilled. Many a farewell service included "A Missionary Cry" as part of the program. At one such service in August, 1891, Simpson spoke after the hymn had been sung:

The hymn that has been sung is my heart's desire and thought for everyone of you to realize: that with every breath I draw, a soul unsaved is passing into the presence of God and accusing someone of neglecting its salvation. There is no subject that so overawes me and overshadows me with its solemnity as this.19

One night, while still a young pastor, he had a vivid dream of a desperate and lost people, mostly Chinese, mutely wringing their hands and looking imploringly to him for the hope of salvation. This dream so moved him that he sought to go to China as a missionary. Although unable to go, he nevertheless carried to his death the vision of evangelizing the unsaved of the Orient. The hymn, "A Macedonian Cry," was inspired by that dream:

  1. A cry is ever sounding upon my burdened ear
    A cry of pain and anguish, a cry of woe and fear.
    It is the voice of myriads, who grope in heathen night
    It is the cry of Jesus to rise and send them light.
O hear the pleading message from every land and nation
O haste and send the answer, ye heralds of salvation
'Come over, come over,' I can hear it every more
'Come over, come over, come over and help us.'

Simpson made the emotional pitch of his missionary songs intentionally high. The 1897 hymnal contained many such missionary songs, but none was so moving as "Only a Little Baby Girl." This song was the direct result of an experience he had had on a trip to China in 1893. He actually saw the body of a baby girl floating in the river near some houseboats, ignored by the people nearby. When he asked why no one had tried to save the girl, he was confronted with the Oriental philosophy of "fate." It was her "fate" to drown, and no one wanted to "interfere." Had she been a boy, they might have tried to prevent the death, but since she was only a girl, she was abandoned to drown.

Shaken by this and other similar experiences in "heathen" countries, Simpson was stirred to write an account in the June 23, 1893 Christian Alliance Weekly, and later, a poem in the August 25th edition. The poem was set to music and appeared in the 1897 hymnal. Verses 1 through 5 describe the hopelessness of the situation, and verse 6 concludes with an especially heart-rending challenge:

Only a little baby girl dead by the river side;
Only a little Chinese child drowned in the floating tide;
But it has brought a vision vast,
dark as the nations' woe;
Oh, has it left one willing heart, answering "I will go?"

How many answered that call? One who did was missionary Alice Landis. She recalled the pathetic hymn when she encountered the same cruelty and death in China in 1901. Her experiences were much the same as Simpson's, and she quoted the song in an impassioned report in the November 30, 1901 Christian Alliance Weekly.

Hymns of the Christian Life

There have been seven editions of Hymns of the Christian Life since the first in 1891, each distinct in purpose and content.

The preface of the first hymnal states its purpose:

The musical taste of our day is in a state of transition. Beyond controversy, the people will have new tunes and hymns that move in a more spirited time than those our fathers sang....Between the Scotch Psalter and the Salvation Army Song Book, there is a wide stretch of territory in which the careful explorer will find much that is good, and possessing that rare quality, endurance....with the belief that a book has been at last prepared that is fully suited for a modern church hymnal, and at the same time adapted to the needs of the prayer meeting, and general gospel work, we present Hymns of the Christian Life for the service of our common Lord and Saviour, praying His blessing upon it for His name's sake.20

The publishers and editors were A.B. Simpson and R. Kelso Carter.

Hymn requests were solicited from members throughout the country before the first Alliance hymnal was compiled. With "cautious optimism" Simpson announced its release in August, 1891:

We have received the first copies of our new hymnal, and we are sure that our readers will agree with us that it is at least cheap. It is as large as most of the church hymnals which cost a dollar or more, and yet it is offered at the low price of fifty cents.21

By September, 1891, it had been introduced at the Old Orchard Missionary Convention, and the review was more confident: "We are gratified to find that all who have examined it are much pleased with Hymns of the Christian Life, and it is beginning to be circulated somewhat widely."22

In the May 18, 1892 magazine, Simpson reported "highest approval" of the new hymnal, and in December 22, 1893, eighteen months after its release, he announced that "they [the office] were receiving testimonies from all directions of the high appreciation with which many of the hymns have been received."23 Simpson noted at the same time that "a good many" of the hymns were being republished in Great Britain and he trusted that God would send them "over the world as messages of His grace and Love."24

The formal introduction of each of these new hymnals usually took place at the Old Orchard conventions in August, and they were well received by all reports. The new hymns by the founder were especially popular, being sung by both special musicians and congregations. Simpson wrote the following about the 1897 convention:

One of the most delightful additions to the Convention was the introduction of our hymn book, which was received with universal favor and gave a pronounced inspiration to the service of song, which was better than any previous conference.25

The early Alliance identified strongly with its hymnody and its distinctive hymnal. No other hymnal was so tailored to the theology of the Alliance as was Hymns of the Christian Life. Several smaller, more specialized Alliance songbooks have been compiled, but Hymns of the Christian Life still represents the main body of Alliance hymnody. The first hymnal contained 455 hymns and was subtitled, "New and Standard Songs for the sanctuary, Sunday schools, prayer meetings, mission work and revival services." It included forty-one Simpson hymns, the greater part of which dealt with sanctification, joy and peace. This hymnal did not include a section specifically identified as "Missions," although "A Missionary Cry" and "Who Will Go?" were included, as was "Trust," one of Simpson's first Missionary Institute graduation songs.

The second hymnal, Hymns of the Christian Life #2 was published in 1897. Seventy-two of the 385 hymns credit Simpson with either words or music. Nine of these seventy-two were carried over from the first hymnal, and eighteen were classified "Work and Missions" hymns. The missionary zeal of that particular stage of Alliance growth is represented by the significant inclusion of forty-seven songs in the "Work and Missions" category. Here was the first appearance of "The Dark Soudan," "Beautiful Japan," "The Land of the Congo," and the plaintive "Only a Little Baby Girl."

Seven years later, in 1904, Simpson announced that the need for a new hymnal had been fulfilled, and that this latest hymnal had an "unusual number of new pieces" with a "richer blessing to the household of faith than even the previous numbers, which have been so widely used."26 The subtitle for Hymns of the Christian Life #3 read: "For church worship, conventions, evangelistic services, prayer meetings, missionary meetings, revival services, rescue mission work and Sunday School." Simpson had written the text for sixty-two of its 270 hymns, and composed a tune for "Not I, But Christ." Most of these were new, and only seven had appeared in either of the first hymnals. More than half of them fell into the categories of "Deeper Christian Life" or "Christian Work and Missions." Simpson proudly wrote that "no other book contains so many mission hymns,"27 and it was the first to contain the well-known hymn, "To the Regions Beyond." Margaret Simpson's name appears more often in this hymnal as well; she is credited with the music for forty-eight hymns.

The fourth hymnal, Hymns of the Christian Life #1, 2 and 3, was published in 1908, and remains the "magnum opus" of Alliance hymnals, containing 946 selections. These were compiled from the first, second and third editions, although four new Simpson songs were included. In an editorial comment in the August 1, 1908 Weekly, Simpson wrote of the new hymnal:

It is being rapidly adopted in the various states, districts and branches as the permanent hymnal of the Alliance work, so that every member should have a copy, and there is little prospect of any change for many years to come.28

The long subtitle of Hymns #3 was retained, but the largest section of hymns (161) was devoted to "Salvation and Invitation." The 1908 hymnal contained 154 of Simpson's songs. Of these, most had to do with salvation and invitation, Christian work and missions, trial, trust and comfort, deeper life and the Lord's coming. Five of his hymns appeared for the first time, including "Launch Out," which was retained in the following three editions.

This 1908 hymnal was the standard denominational hymnal until 1936, when the fifth edition was published. David J. Fant, one of the editors of the hymnal, recalled that "a new singing era had been introduced by Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver,"29 [because of their revival and crusade songs] and in response to this change, the Alliance Board of Managers asked him to prepare a replacement for Hymns of the Christian Life #1, 2 and 3, containing some of this type of music. Neither the 1936 edition nor the succeeding hymnals included an identifying number in their title. The 1936 hymnal contained 504 hymns, fifty-seven of which were Simpson's. Five of these were poems which had been posthumously set to music. (See appendix.) The subtitle of the 1936 revision was less pretentious than the last two: "A Book of Worship in Song, emphasizing Evangelism, Mission and the Deeper Life." Several Simpson hymn tunes had been rewritten, adapted or arranged. The "Evangelism" section, listed under "Evening Service" was the largest category, containing 130 hymns, thirty by Simpson. Only nine of Simpson's mission hymns were included among the considerably decreased total number of missionary songs.

For twenty-six years, the 1936 hymnal was the official songbook of the Alliance. In 1962, the sixth hymnal was published. Much more sophisticated than the earlier editions, this one included cross-referenced indexes and reference guides. There were 566 hymns, fifty-one of which were Simpson's. Harmonic changes were again made in an attempt to appeal to contemporary worshippers, and few of his hymns remained unchanged, with original words and music. Twenty-three Simpson hymns appear under the categories "Consecration, Sanctification and the Deeper Life," "Divine Healing," and the "Overcoming Life," but only seven of his missionary hymns are included. The 1962 edition used some Simpson hymns from earlier hymnals which the 1936 edition did not include. As well, a new hymn "Jesus Interceding," with music by J. Buchanan MacMillan was published; it was a poem which had never been set to music in Simpson's lifetime.

The most recent Hymns of the Christian Life is the seventh hymnal by that title, and was published in 1978. It contains 612 hymns, forty-four of which are attributed to A.B. Simpson. "Not I, But Christ" remains the sole hymn for which he composed the tune only. This hymnal includes greatly expanded indexes, scripture readings and worship aids, making it the most sophisticated Alliance hymnal to date. Four Simpson hymns appear in the 1978 which were not included in the 1962 hymnal, and ten which were in the 1962 edition were not selected for the present one. Ten of his hymns fall into the "Deeper Life" category, six each into the categories "Divine Healing," the "Overcoming Life," and "Missions," and the rest are evenly distributed. Of the forty-one Simpson hymns which were printed in the very first hymnal, fourteen remain in the 1978 edition. Of these fourteen, only "Himself" and "I Will Say Yes to Jesus" still appear with the original, unrevised music.

In all of the seven Alliance hymnals, Simpson received credit 162 times for words, 119 times for both words and music, and six times for music only. Many others of his hymns were published in Alliance magazines and elsewhere during his lifetime, but were not selected for the hymnals.

Probably the last hymn he wrote before his death was one entitled "The Upward Calling," and it appeared as a tribute in the 1945 (Nyack) Missionarian. It was set to music by his daughter, Margaret, but was never distributed. The words depict clearly the Christian's final meeting with Jesus, coming from a man who had looked forward to that meeting all of his life.

1.  A voice is calling me, a hand has grasped me;
     By cords unseen my soul is upward drawn;
     My heart has answered to that upward calling;
     I clasp the hand that lifts and leads me on.
4.  And in my heart I hear the Spirit's whisper;
    "The bridegroom cometh, hasten to prepare;"
    And with my vessels filled and lamps all burning;
    I'm going to meet Him in the air.

The Effect of His Music

Did the hymns of A.B. Simpson truly inspire people, or did those who sing them do so merely out of courtesy to a prominent spiritual leader? May Agnew Stephens wrote:

If it were possible to marshal together all the people to whom Dr. Simpson's hymns have been an inspiration and a blessing, what a mighty host they would be! All around the world they have carried their sweet fragrance; into the jungles of Africa and India, China, Japan, Palestine, Europe, South America and the islands of the sea.30

A.W. Tozer emphatically stated that the songs of Simpson "became a powerful factor toward the success of the Christian and Missionary Alliance."31 Yes, he did inspire people with his music.

He wrote hymns of instruction, hymns of challenge, hymns of testimony and of great longing. He wrote hymns of the Fourfold Gospel, hymns that called for a filling of the Holy Spirit, hymns of healing and of missions. He wrote hymns that delighted in the beauty of the person of Jesus Christ. He presented a call to holiness, urged people to replace the self life with the Christ-life, showed the hopelessness of the lost world and encouraged believers to sing of the hope of Christ's return. He wrote hymns of Christ's sufficiency and the scope of His love, writing not merely for one denomination, nor for his own sphere of influence, but for the universal priesthood for all believers. He wrote of his vision, and continually directed attention to Christ. He wanted the faithful to sing about their faith and to sing heartily.

Are Simpson's hymns really unsingable by today's voices, unfit for a contemporary service? Perhaps. The gospel song itself my be unsuitable for today's worshipper, out of style and out of favor. If such is the case, the great majority of evangelical hymnody is obsolete. A more interesting question might be, "Would Simpson himself frequently use his original hymns one hundred years later?" Perhaps not. To such a question, he might respond with this statement from the preface of his first hymnal:

The musical taste of our day is in a state of transition. Beyond controversy, the people will have new tunes and hymns that move in a more spirited time than our fathers sang....32

We may need to rewrite the music to some of Simpson's hymns. Tunes have been changed before: almost none of the hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley are sung to their original obscure melodies. But more likely, we need new and fresh hymns, hymns which flow from a vision shared with the founder of our denomination. Were Dr. Simpson alive today, I believe he would be calling for new songs, songs that would stir this generation.

The early Christian and Missionary Alliance sang their theology. They shared the vision of their founder expressed through his preaching, writing and music. Today's Alliance congregations are not able to listen to A.B. Simpson's preaching and few will study his writings, but in a day when this denomination needs to remember its distinctives, Alliance constituents can see his view of Christ and share his concern for a lost world through his songs.

Until we see the words of new Alliance hymn writers, we can sing of Christ as Saviour, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King in the hymns of A.B. Simpson. We can read the words in our devotions. We can take "Jesus Only" as our theme. We can sing of world missions, the consecrated Christian life, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the yielded heart. It may be that our singing will help us to share the life-changing vision of the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance.


1. A.B. Simpson, Wholly Sanctified (New York: Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1893; Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1982) p. 58.                                                          (back)

2. A.W. Tozer, Wingspread: Albert B. Simpson, A Study in Spiritual Altitude (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1943), p. 53.                                                                      (back)

3. R. Kelso Carter and A.B. Simpson, comps., Hymns of the Christian Life (New York: Alliance Press, 1891), preface.                                                                                            (back)

4. Margaret Simpson Buckman, "The Hymns of Dr. Simpson," Missionarian (1945): 17.        (back)

5. Tozer, Wingspread, p. 118.                                                                 (back)

6. Ibid., p. 117.                                                                                     (back)

7. Ibid., p. 119.                                                                                                                ( back)

8. Ibid.                                                                                              (back)

9. A.B. Simpson, Himself (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, n.d.).      (back)

10. A.B. Simpson, A Larger Christian Life (New York: Christian Alliance Publishing Co., 1890; Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, n.d.).                                                            (back)

11. May Agnew Stephens, "Dr. Simpson's Ministry in Song," The Alliance Weekly 53 (December 20, 1919): 206.                                                                                                 (back)

12. A.E. Thompson, A.B. Simpson, His Life and Work (Harrisburg, PA: Christian Publications, 1960), p. 56.                                                                                                            (back)

13. J.C. Pollock, Moody, a Biographical Portrait (New York: MacMillan Co., 1963), p. 77.        (back)

14. Thompson, A.B. Simpson, p. 53.                                                        (back)

15. A.B. Simpson, "Editorials," The Christian Alliance and Missionary Weekly 11 (October 6, 1893): 209. (Hereafter cited as CAMW).                                                                 (back)

16. Stephens, "Dr. Simpson's Ministry," p. 206.                                       (back)

17. A.B. Simpson, "Editorials," CAMW 2 (February 1889): 17.                      (back)

18. David J. Fant, "Genealogy of a Hymnal," The Alliance Witness 113 (April 5, 1978): 9.     (back)

19. A.B. Simpson, "Editorials," CAMW 7 (August 28, 1891): 141.                  (back)

20. Carter and Simpson, Hymns, preface.                                                  (back)

21. A.B. Simpson, "Editorials," CAMW 7 (August 7, 1891): 82.                      (back)

22. Simpson, "Editorials," CAMW 7 (September 18, 1891): 178.                      (back)

23. Simpson, "Editorials," CAMW 11 (December 22, 1893): 385.                     (back)

24. Ibid.                                                                                            (back)

25. Simpson, "Editorials," The Christian and Missionary Alliance Weekly 19 (August 11, 1897): 156 (Hereafter cited as CMAW).                                                                   (back)

26. A.B. Simpson, May Agnew Stevens and Margaret M. Simpson, comps., Hymns of the Christian Life, 3rd ed. (New York: Alliance Press Co., 1904), p. 27.                                          (back)

27. Simpson, "Editorials," CMAW 34 (June 3, 1905): 350.                              (back)

28. Simpson, "Editorials," CMAW 30 (August 1, 1908): 296.                          (back)

29. Fant, "Genealogy," p. 10.                                                                  (back)

30. Stephens, "Dr. Simpson's Ministry," p. 206.                                          (back)

31. Tozer, Wingspread, p. 119.                                                                 (back)

32. Carter and Simpson, Hymns, preface.                                                    (back)