Hymnology: The Story Behind “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” - Geneva College
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Hymnology: The Story Behind “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Picture of Hymnology: The Story Behind “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV). The positive nature of this Bible passage certainly doesn’t seem like it would be associated with a book written specifically for lamenting. Nonetheless, this verse has served as an inspiration for a well-known hymn that has grown in popularity over the past 150 years.

With the end of a long and hard week comes the hopeful beginnings of a fresh start every Sunday morning. Sundays allow for a time of relaxation from the difficulties of the passing week and the approaching work that hits you like a freight train on Monday. Attending church Sunday mornings is symbolic to giving God the very first of our week by listening to His Word, praying, engaging in Christian fellowship and singing praises to our faithful Heavenly Father.

Whether a denominational or nondenominational church, the use of hymnals is a worship necessity if leading a large group in song. Found in various shades of blue, green, yellow, black, red and purple, hymnals are used every Sunday morning in congregations throughout the world. Songs like “It is Well with My Soul,” “What a Friend we Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Because He Lives” are well known, beautiful hymns sung across the nation and, in some cases, the entire globe.

Year after year we sing these hymns, yet sometimes never understand what led the author to that point in their life when they wrote the song. Furthermore, after a hymn has been sung so many times, people can begin to lose sight of the meaning of each perfectly positioned verse. If you are anything like me, you may have even memorized certain hymns while never really understanding what the words truly meant or how the hymn came to reach the pages of a hymnal. What if we could uncover the hidden story behind these hymns? What would we find?

Although there are hundreds of hymns that could be discussed, we have to start somewhere. Let us dive into the hidden story behind the song of “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Most people would admit to knowing this song but wouldn’t be able to give any detail on who wrote it, where it came from, or how it became so well known. Some people may actually not even fully grasp what the lyrics mean. So let’s begin, here is the story behind the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

In a Kentucky log cabin Thomas O. Chisholm was born in 1866. Even though he was not offered a formal education, Thomas succeeded academically. Beginning work at the age of sixteen, Thomas became a schoolteacher in the same schoolhouse that he was educated. He later became associate editor of the local newspaper and moved on to be an editor of the Pentecostal Herald in Louisville, Kentucky. He also made some poetical contributions of his own to other local newspapers. At the age of 26, Thomas made one of the most important decisions that he would make in his life when he accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior in 1893. In 1903, he was officially ordained a minister, but was forced to limit his years of service due to his poor health.

Throughout his life, Thomas wrote hundreds of poems. One such poem was based in Lamentations 3:22-23 where it says, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (ESV). Thomas eventually sent his work to a fellow minister and friend, William Runyan who configured a musical setting for the poem. George Beverly Shea was asked to sing the newly configured hymn on the Moody Bible Institute radio station.

A young student at Wheaton College at the time, Billy Graham was listening to the radio when he heard the song “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Soon after, he asked George Shea to sing it as part of his ministry of evangelism. Eventually through the many crusades put on by Billy Graham, the song “Great is Thy Faithfulness” became internationally known.

The core of this hymn is simple, yet it entails some beautifully constructed messages. Overall, the message of the song points to the amazing faithfulness of our Heavenly Father. He has been, is, and always will be compassionate and unchanging. In every season, in every aspect of creation, we can bear witness to his everlasting faithfulness. Although we may sin, God is rich in mercy and continuously forgives his people of their many transgressions. He is the supplier of peace and His presence provides guidance. We can find true joy in Him and He provides us with strength to get us through each day and hope for a brighter tomorrow. This hope and strength He replenishes continuously. With each new morning that passes by, God brings new mercies, providing everything we need when we need it. Great is God’s never ceasing faithfulness!

Although Thomas Chisholm had suffered under poor health throughout his life, God’s faithfulness was evident to him. God has been faithful in the past, is faithful in the present and will continue to be faithful till the end of the age. Both William Runyan and Billy Graham evidently saw the beauty and significance in the words that Thomas Chisholm wrote in his poem, making the rising popularity of “Great is They Faithfulness” inevitable.

Music plays an important role in a Geneva College education. From vocal ensembles to marching, jazz and symphonic bands, Geneva knows music... and you can too. Find out more at www.geneva.edu/music or take the next step toward becoming a student at Geneva College Admissions, admissions@geneva.edu and 800-847-8255.

- Abby Forton ‘22

Opinions expressed in the Geneva Blog are those of its contributors and do not necessarily represent the opinions or official position of the College. The Geneva Blog is a place for faculty and contributing writers to express points of view, academic insights, and contribute to national conversations to spark thought, conversation, and the pursuit of truth, in line with our philosophy as a Christian, liberal arts institution.

Sep 2, 2021