History of Hymns: “I Love to Tell the Story”

by C. Michael Hawn

"I Love to Tell the Story"
Katherine Hankey
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 156

Katherine Hankey

I love to tell the story
of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory,
of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story,
because I know 'tis true;
it satisfies my longings
as nothing else can do.


During the season of Lent, our hymns will focus on five devotional texts written by 19th-century women in the United States and England. Taken together, these five hymns provide us insight into a particular piety that is still meaningful to many today.

These hymns share much in common.

They reflect the evangelical fervor in 19th century England and the United States that found its roots in the mid-18th century with such leaders as the Wesley brothers and George Whitfield.

The hymns all speak from the first person singular, making personal statements of faith in song.

They share to varying degrees a language of intimacy, a trait often associated -- though not exclusively -- with hymns written by women.

The characteristic of intimacy was not invented in 19th-century Romantic era hymns. One can find this language in Bernard of Clairvaux's 12th-century Latin text, "Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my breast" (UM Hymnal, 175). John Wesley translated Paul Gerhardt's 17th-century pietistic text, "Jesu, thy boundless love to me no thought can reach, no tongue declare" (UM Hymnal, 183). Of course, many of Charles Wesley's 18th-century texts were full of personal and passionate language.

Neither has the 19th century had the last word on passionate, first-person, intimate language. Note, for example, Australian Darlene Zchech's signature contemporary praise song, "Shout to the Lord" (The Faith We Sing, 2074) that begins, "My Jesus, my Savior, Lord, there is none like you."

Telling Christ's story

Arabella Katherine Hankey (1834-1911) grew up in the family of a wealthy English banker associated with the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. As a teenager she taught a girls' Sunday school class. Later she traveled to South Africa to serve as a nurse and to assist her invalid brother.

While recovering from a lengthy illness of her own at age 30, she wrote a poem on the life of Christ. This poem had two sections, the first published in January 1866 and entitled The Story Wanted, the second published later that year in November under the title The Story Told. Our hymn is drawn from stanzas in the second section. The text of the refrain was written by the composer of the music, William G. Fisher, in 1869. (A musician herself, Hankey wrote her own tunes for the text, but others found little use for them.)

In 1867 Englishman Major General Russell cited the text of "I Love to Tell the Story" at a large international YMCA gathering in Montreal. William Doane, a composer of more than 2000 gospel songs including music for many of Fanny Crosby's hymns, was in the audience. His musical setting did not stick, but another setting composed by William G. Fisher, a Philadelphia musician and piano dealer (1832-1912), did. When Phillip Bliss and Ira Sankey included Fisher's version in their influential Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs (1875), its fame was assured.

The personal, intimate language comes through in such phrases, for example, as "it [the story] satisfies my longings as nothing else can do" (stanza one) and "it did so much for me, and that is just the reason I tell it now to thee" (stanza two). Hankey is passionate about this story and how it has changed her life. In the refrain the word "love" takes on a double meaning -- both about the state of the singer and the message of Jesus: "I love to tell the story . . . of Jesus and his love."

Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck notes that Hankey wrote many books such as Bible Class Teachings and several collections of verse, and adds: "All of the royalties received from these publications were always directed to some foreign mission project."

 

Dr. Hawn is director of the sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology.
 

Categories: History of Hymns

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