Come, thou Fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.
Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.
This hymn is one of my favorites. It was written by Robert Robinson, born in Norfolk, England in 1735. John Julian of the 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology said that Robinson’s hymns were “evangelical but not sentimental… His prose has all…that vehement and enthusiastic glow of passion that belongs to the orator.”
I think that’s what draws me to this hymn– it was written during the hymn explosion of the Great Awakening, but it isn’t sappy. Its emotional restraint gives it a spiritual profundity. Compared to some of the more overwrought, sentimental hymn texts that came from the evangelical movement, the poetic hyperbole in this hymn isn’t overly dramatic– it’s just enough to give us the words to express the feeling of fullness in one’s heart when coming face to face with the staggering truth of God’s love, and the debt we have to grace through Christ’s sacrifice for us. This is why this 18th-century hymn is still so relatable today, because that feeling of spiritual fullness is timeless. The last stanza is like a prayer– Lord, we’re so very prone to wander, and we wish so badly that we weren’t. Here are our hearts, take them and seal them, only for you!
Robert Robinson was born into a poor family, so though his mother wished he would enter the clergy, his prospects were slim. As a teenager, Robinson became apprenticed to a barber in London, though he spent more of his time reading than apprenticing. While living in London, he fell under the influence of a “notorious gang of hoodlums” and began living a life of sin and debauchery. In 1752, he heard a sermon preached by George Whitefield on “The Wrath to Come,” and spent several years of discomfort over his past actions and his spiritual life. He began to associate with a Calvinistic Methodist connexion and to learn from their evangelistic preachers, and he soon after began to preach himself, first with the Calvinist Methodists before being rebaptized in 1759 as a Baptist and preaching for nearly 30 years at Stone Yard Baptist Church at Cambridge.
Robinson wrote “Come, thou Fount” in 1758, and it is thought to be autobiographical, especially the line “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” He first published this hymn in A Collection of Hymns that was intended for use in the Church of Christ in Whitechappel. It has been included in Methodist hymnals since 1822.
The tune of this hymn first appeared in John Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music in 1813, and was initially named HALLELUJAH. The tune name of NETTLETON comes from the famous nineteenth century evangelist Ahasel Nettleton. It was one of two tunes for “Come, thou Fount” in Wyeth’s collection, but is by far the most popular. Eklanah Kelsay Dare was a Methodist minister and compiler of Wyeth’s collection, and may have adapted the tune from Methodist and Baptist camp-meeting repertory. The harmonization that is in the current UMH was first found in the 1878 Methodist hymnal, which was adapted from the music in the 1849 hymnal.
In today’s hymnals, there can be found slight alterations of this text depending on the editorial team responsible for the hymnal publication. One of the words that is often changed in this hymn is the reference to Ebenezer, and I am so glad the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal committee saw fit to keep this reference. I am of the firm belief that references such as this give the church an opportunity to teach about the history of our faith, an opportunity that is lost when we change:
“Here I raise mine Ebenezer”
“Here I find my greatest treasure”
This change of words drastically changes the meaning of the verse, and further, i think it detracts from the beautiful complexity of the text. But let’s consider why the change was likely made, and what the original line means?
The reference to Ebenezer comes from 1 Samuel, the 7th chapter. In this chapter, the Israelites were at Mizpah and have turned back to the Lord, but when the Philistines heard about the assembly of Israelites, they saw it as an opportunity for an attack. In their fear, the Israelites fasted and cried out to the Lord, and begged Samuel to intercede with the Lord for them. Samuel did as they asked, sacrificing a lamb as a burnt offering and crying out to the Lord on their behalf, who listened. As Samuel was making the burnt offering, the Philistines attacked, “But that day the Lord thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites.” (v. 10b), and for the rest of Samuel’s life, “the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines.”
In response to the Lord’s faithfulness to His people….
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” (v. 12)
In the hymn, the line “Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I’m come” isn’t just a reference to Samuel’s actions. It sums up our gratefulness to the God of Israel, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament, who was, and is, and always will be faithful to His people. We raise our “Ebenezer” as a symbol of the knowledge we have in the God who has never failed us, who has brought us through dangers, troubles, toils, and snares, and through whom we hope, “by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”
Hymnal committees probably changed this word because the term “Ebenezer” isn’t one we’re familiar with. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sermon preached on this passage in 1 Samuel, and I definitely never learned it in Sunday School. When compiling a hymnal, it’s important that the hymns are relevant to the church of the day, which usually means taking out many of the “thee” and “thy” and “thou” and “ye” and other antiquated words, and I suspect, in this case, “Ebenezer” fell under the ax for being antiquated.
What did they change it to, though? Finding one’s “greatest treasure” in the worship of the Lord is a worthy sentiment as well, to be sure, but there are many hymns that express that sentiment far more eloquently. I understand that the reference to “Ebenezer” isn’t one that most people will understand, but I don’t think that obscurity means it’s a useless reference. Besides, most people don’t understand a lot about the Christian faith until they are taught.
We need to be taught the symbolism of the rainbow and the ark as God’s promise to his people. We are taught the symbolism of the water as cleansing us through baptism, so that we can be reborn in Him. We are taught the symbolism of the bread and wine, and of the cross.
Our faith and religion are complex and require teaching, and just as one wouldn’t dream of dumbing down other aspects of our faith to make them more “accessible”, I think we should be cautious before removing imagery from our hymns that connect us to God’s historical people. Instead, those references can teach us about our faith, and about our God– through learning about Ebenezer, we discover God’s faithfulness to the Israelites, and we know that the God of the Old Testament is the same God today.
I hope that the next time you sing this hymn, you think about your Ebenezer as you pray, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.”