Dear Elders and Sisters #14: Come Thou Fount–The Story behind its writing, lessons we can learn, and why it isn’t in our hymnal!
Things are great at the MTC! The choir is getting ready to sing for a special Thanksgiving devotional. We have a pretty full group—I think it is because they heard we are singing “Come Thou Fount.” For today’s letter I thought you might like to learn some of the details behind “Come Thou Fount.” There are many lessons to be learned from the story behind its creation, the doctrine it teaches, and why it isn’t in our hymnal.
The History of Come Thou Fount
There are many stories about the writing of Come Thou Fount, and I think I’ve read most of them. It is clear that as a young man, Robert Robinson, was thoughtful but no saint. His conversion likely began when he and some friends decided to visit a local fortune-teller to have their fortunes read. The story goes that after giving her a large quantity of alcohol she began to tell the futures of the young men. At one point, she came face to face with Robinson and proclaimed that he would “live to see his children and children’s children.”
For some reason these words, that would probably be true for any of the young ruffians, struck a chord in Robinson’s heart. If someday he was going to have grandchildren, he would need to change his life. Even though he was pondering those things, He and his friends decided to visit a religious gathering to heckle the preacher. The preacher that night, however, was the famous George Whitehead, who spoke on the “Wrath to Come” from the Book of Matthew. Again, Robinson’s heart was touched. For three years this sermon weighed on Robinson’s soul, until at the age of 20 he fully converted to Christianity and gave his life to Christ. Three years later, in preparation for a sermon, he penned the now famous words, “Come Thou Fount.”
Two Lessons from the Song
Raise Your Ebenezer
The first lesson comes from the line, “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” During the ministry of the Old Testament prophet Samuel, the Israelites (as they were prone to do) had “left their God” in search of worldly pleasures and foreign Gods. As an ominous army of Philistines approached the nation was gripped with fear. Samuel approached his people with a promise: “…return unto the Lord with all your hearts, … and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7:3)
The Israelites responded to Samuel’s promise, and indeed the Lord “thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel.” (1 Samuel 7:10) Samuel, knowing that they were a people prone to wonder and quick to forget, took a great stone and placed it where it could be seen by all the people. He named the stone, “Ebenezer,” which means “stone of help.”
Why did Samuel raise the Ebenezer stone? The building of altars of remembrance and monuments was a common practice among the people of God. These monuments served as reminders of God’s help in ages past. Whenever the Israelites saw “Ebenezer” they would be reminded of their promise to “Follow the One True God,” and of his promised deliverance.
I have been encouraging the MTC missionaries to make their mission a personal Ebenezer! We are all prone to wander, and we feel it. We are all prone to leave the God we love. But, this can be the time in our lives where we “raise our Ebenezer.” We can look back on our missions as a reminder of our covenants and the blessings we receive as we faithfully keep them. Too many missionaries are returning home and “wandering” back to their pre-mission life. This must not happen to us!
We must be like another famous Ebenezer, Ebenezer Scrooge. The story, written by Charles Dickens, embodies this principle well. After a life-time as a heartless, money-hoarding, miser, Ebenezer has a monumental change of heart brought about by the visit of three “Christmas ghosts.” When he comes to he realizes his folly, and becomes as good a man as the old city had ever known.
Feed the Right Wolf to Stop Your Wandering
The second lesson from the song is in regards to overcoming our “prone to wander” natures. Many of us have found that we want to be better, but struggle to actually improve. We feel the pull of heaven within us, but continue to wander into forbidden paths. What can be done?
We have all heard the famous story of the young brave who approaches the village elder with the same question—what can I do when I want to live right, but keep doing wrong? The Elder responds that in each person there lives two wolves. One that is good and one that is evil. The wolves are in a constant battle with each other. The brave, now deeply concerned, asks “but which one will win?” The Elder replies, “The one that you feed!”
Although the story has been over-told to the point of cliché, it still strikes at the heart of the matter. I used to wonder why Bishops and Stake Presidents gave much of the same advice to those struggling with a variety of sins: “Feast upon the scriptures, partake of the sacrament, sincerely pray, and serve others.” I’ve come to understand that each of these things “feeds” your soul and strengthens you for the fight. Not surprisingly, my bishop recently reported to our ward that he has yet to interview someone who is “losing the fight” that has been doing these four things. Elders and Sisters, this is not only true for you, but also for your investigators. If you find that they want to follow the Savior, but are struggling, help them to feed the right wolf. And as we all know, The Book of Mormon is a SUPER-FOOD!
Why isn’t Come Thou Fount in our Hymnal?
In 1983-1985 the Church Music Committee was assigned to prepare a new hymnal for the church. It was decided that all of music in the current hymnal as well as new hymns would be considered. After careful research, which involved an extensive survey of which songs were and were not being sung, around 70 “unsung” hymns were identified. Those hymns were removed and replaced with new hymns that were more appropriate for today’s problems, and today’s world-wide church. Come Thou Fount, was one hymn that was removed.
For 13 years no one seemed to know or care, then around 1997 Mack Wilberg wrote a marvelous arrangement that was shown on Public Television performed by the BYU choirs. A young woman with a tear rolling down her cheek sings, “Here’s my heart, Take and Seal it!” Well, that was the tear heard around the world! Across the church, music directors went to their hymnals to select that song for the Thanksgiving worship services, only to find out that it was gone. Immediately the Church was up-in-arms. Many cries of “Why did they take that out? It was my favorite song!” were heard. Even in this there are lessons. First, we often don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone. And second, in the master’s hand something or someone unused and unappreciated can become something beautiful!
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. We are very thankful for you and pray for you every day. Be safe, follow the Spirit—He will lead you right.
Brother and Sister Eggett