ANTHONY J. SHOWALTER (1858-1924), a shape-note singing teacher, songbook publisher, and elder in the First Presbyterian Church in Dalton, Georgia, returned home one night in the mid-1880s to find two letters waiting for him. Both were from former students who were grieving the deaths of their wives.
Anthony sat down to write sympathy letters to the two young men. Searching for just the right words of assurance, he remembered the last message attributed to Moses (Deuteronomy 33:27), “The eternal God is your refuge and underneath are the everlasting arms.”
This Bible verse stuck in Anthony’s mind and wouldn’t let go. Before long, he had the melody and refrain of the hymn we know as “LEANING ON THE EVERLASTING ARMS.” But what about the verses?
Anthony wrote to Rev. ELISHA HOFFMAN (1839-1929), a Presbyterian minister in Ohio, and asked for help. Hymn singing was second nature to Elisha who had grown up with parents who sang their praise and prayers to begin and end each day. Eventually, he’d compose over 2,000 hymns and compile over 50 songbooks. He was glad to collaborate with Anthony on this hymn of comfort and promptly wrote the lyrics. The hymn was published in 1887.
A HYMN FOR OUR ANXIOUS TIMES
“What have I to dread, what have I to fear?” A lot, it would seem. We live in an atmosphere of suspicion. Now, when we enter the airport, our bags are checked for bombs and our shoes for explosives. Surveillance cameras follow us everywhere.
Anxiety is high in our brave new world. There are metal detectors in our schools, locks on our doors, alarms in our cars. We are told to report anything suspicious — “If you see something, say something.” We worry about identity theft and shred our documents.
As if our anxiety levels weren’t already heightened by the evening news, we watch TV shows and horror flicks depicting our worst fears for entertainment. Flailing for answers, we pour our money and resources into a prison industry to keep vast numbers of people in cages. We are obsessed with security. We clamor for walls to keep some people in, other walls to keep some people out. We long to feel safe.
What if we lived as though God’s loving arms were wrapped around the whole world? What if we really did lean on Jesus? Would we make different choices? Would we be less fearful? Would we deal differently with each other? Would we figure out how to foster an atmosphere of trust rather than fear and suspicion? Would we walk with more confidence, neither doing harm nor allowing harm to be done to us or those around us? Can we imagine that the arms of Jesus embrace, not only us, but each friend and each stranger we see?
There are no answers here, just a lot of “what ifs” inspired by a comforting old hymn.
TO GO DEEPER
Words and music for “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” at Hymnary website
Mahalia Jackson singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, 1964, Chicago
First Plymouth Church Lincoln Nebraska, arrangement by Eric Nelson