PAM’S COMMENTS ON THE TEXT
Who wrote the words to “HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION”? Hymnologists are puzzled. When Rev. John Rippon (1751-1836) first published it in his hymn collection, it was attributed to “K.” Later editions named the author “Kn” or “Keen” … wait, there’s more … or “Kirkham.” What? Robert Keen was the name of the song leader at Rev. Rippon’s church, Carter Lane Baptist in London. They were close friends, so maybe … Well, no one knows for sure. Its authorship is a genuine mystery.
Whoever wrote it, this hymn has been beloved by Christians since it first appeared in print in 1787 . Three years later, it found its way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia and from there into American hymnals. It was most often sung to the tune ADESTE FIDELES (“O Come, All Ye Faithful”), before it was sung to the American folk tune FOUNDATION as we know it. The words were a comfort to both Union and Confederate soldiers on Civil War battlefields and were sung at the funerals of Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
Time out for a laugh: Because Teddy Roosevelt was known for his boisterous hymn singing, a joke was told about his entry into heaven. At the Pearly Gates, he complained to Saint Peter about the feebleness of the Heavenly Choir and was promptly assigned the task of reorganizing it. The President didn’t hesitate: “I need ten thousand sopranos! Ten thousand altos! Ten thousand tenors!” Saint Peter was taken aback. He asked, “But what about the basses?” Roosevelt replied with a smirk, “Oh, I’ll sing bass.”
This hymn, an anthem to survival, is sung as if directly to us in the voice of God whose Word is our firm foundation in good times and bad. “Fear not, I am with thee,” we are told over and over. Bible verses, from Isaiah to Acts, are woven into the text of this hymn. In one stanza, we declare our faith in a merciful god through a satisfying series of negatives: “That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake.”
Not all disasters are the stuff of headlines. Henry David Thoreau wrote that most people “live lives of quiet desperation.” Hearts break after the discovery of an affair. Rejection letters are quietly crumpled. Wine bottles are lifted to lips in solitude. Even when we face rivers of woe and fiery trials, we don’t have to go through the hard times alone. We are not forsaken.
The good news is that God loves each one — the lost and the found. The faithful, however, are blessed to know themselves loved, and that makes all the difference.
DEANNA’S COMMENTS ON THE MUSIC
The hymn tune FOUNDATION is an American folk melody that was probably composed in the mid-1700s. As with its most paired text, “How Firm a Foundation,” its authorship remains unknown.
The tune’s continued popularity from its Civil war days to the present is due in part to one particular musical factor: its pentatonic melody. Like the hymn tunes BEACH SPRING and HOLY MANNA (both of which appear on Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns) as well as AMAZING GRACE, FOUNDATION consists of five pitches in its melody. If you have a piano or keyboard, you can play the melody of all of these tunes on just the black keys (C#, D#, F#, G#, A#). Play these pitches from the low end up (C# up to A#), you’ll notice that there is a “gap,” or a larger interval, between the D# and the F#. If you continue to the next set of black keys, you’ll notice a gap between A# and C#. All the rest of the intervals are seconds, and this gap is a minor third. These two gaps make the pentatonic scale distinctive from many other scales.
In the melody to FOUNDATION, most of the leaps happen on beats 1 or 3 of the measure (“how FIRM a foun-DA-tion ye SAINTS of the LORD is LAID for your FAITH in God’s EX-cell-ent word”). This gives the hymn a definite “two-feel.” For contrast, try humming the melody of FOUNDATION; then the melody of “Holy, Holy, Holy” (hymn tune: NICAEA). You’ll notice that NICAEA- at least as traditionally played or sung- has a definite “four-feel” as opposed to the “two-feel” of FOUNDATION.
In my arrangement of FOUNDATION (hear it here), I change the rhythmic feel by adding a baião rhythm from the Northeast of Brazil (a country that I’m about to visit for two months!). I also extend the first three phrases by one bar, which breaks up the melody’s insistence on beats 2 and 4 and allows space to breathe. The trio also plays an eight-bar instrumental interlude between each verse. The arrangement is easy for congregations to follow. Let me know how you use the arrangement in your community!
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: How Firm a Foundation” by C. Michael Hawn on UMC Discipleship Ministries website
Hear the full track of FOUNDATION from Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns here
Sheet music sample of Deanna’s arrangement of FOUNDATION
View/purchase Deanna’s jazz hymn arrangements here:
Hear a popular baião by Luiz Gonzaga, “Asa Branca.”
“Hymnspiration: How Firm a Foundation” blog essay by Sharon Hall
Music and text at hymnary.org
Presidential Praise: Our Presidents and Their Hymns by C. Edward Spamm & Michael E. Williams, Sr., Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 2008