My first inkling of the power of hymns came at age ten at a farewell service in the Medina Methodist Church for the only minister I could remember, Reverend Cory. It was news to me that ministers moved, aged, retired, or died. I had assumed that Rev. Cory, a kindly father-figure to all us kids, was like God, Santa Claus, or Walter Cronkite — someone who would always be there.
That day, as we stood to sing “BLEST BE THE TIE THAT BINDS,” the grownups around me cried. Their voices sounded oddly strained. As we sang, I understood that our little world would never be the same and that a hymn was helping us express our shared sorrow.
REV. FAWCETT’S DILEMMA — TO GO OR STAY?
Imagine it! Rev. John Fawcett (1739-1817) was a young preacher in Wainsgate, which seemed then to be the middle of nowhere. (Think Wuthering Heights.) The Yorkshire countryside in Northern England was barren and cold.
The people — goodhearted, hardworking, mostly illiterate — had next to nothing. They supplemented their pastor’s meager stipend with wool and potatoes. Nor was there a parsonage. Instead, Fawcett, his wife and four children were passed from one family to the next, a few months here, a few months there, no place to call their own. They suffered chilly drafts and ate porridge with their host families.
Poverty was nothing new to Fawcett. Orphaned at 12, he became an indentured servant at 13, worked 14 hours a day, and taught himself to read at night. When he was 15, he stood in an outdoor crowd of 20,000 to hear a sermon by George Whitefield, “the marvel of the age,” and set his mind on becoming a preacher.
One day in 1772, after seven years of pastoring in Yorkshire, 33-year-old Fawcett got the call. He had established a reputation as a theologian, inspiring preacher, and serious scholar and was now wanted in London. London!
It seemed a dream come true, to move to lively London where his family’s standard of living would vastly improve. The city had good schools, libraries, sophisticated music and art, churches with stained glass, and educated colleagues for deep conversation. Fawcett agonized over the tempting offer and finally said YES!
The family packed up, climbed into a wagon, and waved to people who had come many miles to say goodbye. The scene was so wrenching, however, that Fawcett realized he couldn’t leave. He turned the horses around, unpacked, and stayed in Yorkshire for another 45 years.
Out of this experience, he wrote the most famous of his 160 hymns, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds.” It became a favorite hymn for Christians facing separation, an affirmation that friendship and community are the true measures of wealth.
LIFE LESSON: EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE
The hard lesson that life is a constant series of shifting relationships is as old as the variable moon. Even with today’s tools of e-mail, texting, and social media, relationships seem fragile. If we’re lucky and willing to keep our hearts open, life offers endless opportunities to include new friends into our circle. Here is a hymn that celebrates the strength of our connections, old and new.
Today, “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” holds many layers of memory for me, but every time I sing this hymn, every single time, I remember Rev. Cory and the community that loved him, the community that loved me, too.
TO GO DEEPER
Lyrics at Hymnsite.com
The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations by Albert Edward Bailey, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950/ MacMillan Publishing Co., 1978.
“Sisters” sing a cappella “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds” in four styles to four tunes — traditional, Bluegrass, Praise & Worship, Gospel, at the Northwest GospelFest, 2011. (4:12 mins.)