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3/18/13 at 10:38 AM 0 Comments

Hymn Stories: How Firm a Foundation

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In 1787 Dr. John Rippon published A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors as a supplement to Isaac Watts’ classic Psalms and Hymns. The book was an immense success. “The remarkable feature of the book,” writes Louis Benson, “is the great number of original hymns secured by him and there first printed.” Among these original hymns was the title “How Firm a Foundation.”

As you can see in this facsimile of the original publication, Rippon attributed the authorship simply to “K–-.” He says in the preface that such attributions meant either that the author was unknown or that the hymn had undergone significant revisions for publication.

Later studies have revealed that the “K–-” almost certainly referred to R. Keene, who was at one time a song leader in Dr. Rippon’s church and is also known to have authored the hymn’s melody. Apart from this, we have no further information about its writing.

Features

Perhaps the most noteworthy and appreciated feature of this hymn is how closely it resembles the words of the Bible itself (which is fitting, given that its theme is the solidity of the word of God).

Consider, for example, how stanza 2 compares to Philippians 4:12-13:

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Or how stanza 3 echoes Isaiah 41:10:

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

(See also how stanzas 4 and 5 reflect Isaiah 43:2.)

Influence

Since its publication, “How Firm a Foundation” has enjoyed wide acceptance, especially in North America. It is known to have been the favorite hymn of General Robert E. Lee and was sung at his funeral. It is also said that once, while conducting evening prayers in Princeton Seminary’s Oratory, Dr. Charles Hodge was so overcome with feeling during the last line of the hymn (“I’ll never, no never, no never forsake,” from Hebrews 13:5) that he could no longer sing but only gesture the words.

Here are the much-loved words. Note that the second-to-last verse is rarely sung anymore due to its antiquated language.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?

In every condition, in sickness, in health;
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on the land, on the sea,
As thy days may demand, shall thy strength ever be.

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

Even down to old age all My people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.

The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

Download It

The band Ordinary Time recently recorded a version of this hymn. I asked if they would be willing to give it away for free (I’m shameless that way) and they generously agreed. You can download it free here. (The site allows you to give a tip but they are very glad for you to simply download it without a tip!)

Posts in this Series:

  1. Hymn Stories: Abide With Me
  2. Hymn Stories: My Jesus I Love Thee
  3. Hymn Stories: How Firm a Foundation (+ Free Download)
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