Missionary Stories and Hymn Stories: Saying “Amen” to “Depth and Complication”

“British missionary William Carey is often called the father of modern missions,” writes Rebecca Hopkins in Christianity Today. “Adoniram Judson has been titled the first American missionary to travel overseas.”

And for many of us, that pretty much sums up the origin of missions in the West. But Rebecca has more to tell us in “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” as she adds in Rebecca Protten and George Liele. Why are they notable? Because both left America and planted churches before Carey or Judson went out—Protten to St. Thomas and later present-day Ghana, and Liele to Jamaica—and both were former slaves.

If Protten’s and Liele’s names are new to you, grab the January/February issue of CT to read their stories, stories that, as Rebecca writes, “add depth and complication to the sometimes too-simple narrative of missions history.” Depth, because of the inclusion of Black Christians that sit outside the traditional narrative of the White American church. Complication, because Protten and Liele were not “commissioned” and “sent out” in the traditional sense, and because questions remain as to how complicit they were in the evils of their day—Protten in regards to “cultural genocide” and Liele in regards to slavery.

I like the phrase “depth and complication.” Too often we Christians find comfort in our “too-simple narratives,” leaving out difficult details, and leaving out people, as well.

Rebecca’s article and that phrase were in the back of my mind a few weeks ago (pardon me while I go on a stream-of-consciousness trek here) when I heard on the radio the end of an interview with the African-American composer Thomas Dorsey. I looked up more on Dorsey, known as the “Father of Soul Music,” and here’s what I found.

The son of a Baptist preacher and church organist, Dorsey started his musical career as a blues piano player, often performing in bars and brothels, and later toured with the “Mother of the Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. Then in 1921, after attending the National Baptist Convention, he committed himself to writing gospel music. But it wasn’t a full commitment, as he didn’t completely turn his back on the blues culture of the time, which included “dirty blues,” risqué songs filled with double entendres. It was in this genre that he cowrote his most popular blues piece, the hit “It’s Tight like That.” As Dorsey tried to introduce his bluesy gospel songs in churches, his mixing of the secular and holy rankled many preachers. And as Dorsey tells Steven Kaplan in Horizon, he believed preachers felt upstaged by his music. “I got kicked out of some of the best churches in town,” he says.

He found a better welcome in Ebenezer Baptist Church, where, in 1931, he helped establish the first gospel choir. But it was the next year when his life truly changed, resulting in his writing the classic gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Following is the story, told by Dorsey in the documentary, Say Amen, Somebody. It takes place after he had travelled to St. Louis, while his wife remained in South Chicago:

Anyway, I was in a revival, and my wife was to become a mother. I went away with a feeling that she’d make a lovely, lovely mother when I came back. I knew my people were well when I left home. And they sent for me to come to the door. As a boy brought me in a telegram, I took it and read it, almost fell out . . . says “Hurry home. Your wife just died.” I don’t know how you would accept that. I couldn’t accept it at all. And a friend of mine put me in a car, took me right home. I got home. I jumped out and ran in to see if it was really true. And one of the girls just started crying, said, “Netty just died! Netty just died! Netty just died!” and fell on the floor. The baby was left alive, but the next two days, the baby died!

Now what should I do then and there? And then they tried to tell me things that would sooth . . . be soothing to me. But none of it’s never been soothing to me, from that day to this day. But two fellows come by, I forget their names. They were friends of mine. And they were telling me about it and I says “I don’t know what to do and I don’t know how to do.” And I just tried to make my little talk to the Lord, but it was wasted I think. And I called the Lord some one thing and one of the others says, “No, that’s not his name, say, ‘Precious Lord.'” I said, “That does sounds good,” and . . . got several Amens on precious Lord. And ladies and gentlemen, believe it or not, I started singing right then and there. . . .

And he bursts into the chorus of his most famous song.

I’d never heard that story told before, had you? But if you’re like me, you have heard a story that includes another couple from Chicago, deaths in the family, a telegram, and a church song. It’s about Horatio and Anna Spafford, dedicated Presbyterians and friends of the evangelist, Dwight L. Moody. In 1873, following the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire and after some personal financial setbacks, the Spaffords decided to take some time away in France. Anna and their four daughters went ahead, with Horatio to follow. While the five were crossing the Atlantic, their ship collided with another and sank. All of their children drowned, and the telegram Anna sent to Horatio began, “Saved alone what shall I do.” Weeks later, as he crossed the Atlantic himself to be with Anna, Horatio passed by the spot of his children’s deaths, and that evening he penned the words that became the famous hymn “It Is Well with My Soul.” It begins,

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

It is well (it is well),
With my soul (with my soul),
It is well, it is well with my soul.

This is where the hymn’s origin-story ends, but not the story of the Spaffords. Three years later, with changing views that put them in conflict with their church, Horatio and Anna formed a new congregation, with Horatio at the helm. He taught that the members of the church, which he considered the true bride of Christ, were to forsake all worldly attachments.

Then, in 1881, the Spaffords, with their two young children, born after the tragedy at sea, led fourteen others to relocate to Jerusalem to await Christ’s return. The group, dubbed the “Overcomers,” became well known for its works of charity, helping those in need, regardless of their religious affiliation, and making no effort to proselytize. But word of their beliefs and lifestyle also spread. Each member was given a new name, and all lived communally in a compound. Education for the children was considered unnecessary. And celibacy was required. While the group considered Horatio the leader and his wife a prophet, Anna became more and more vocal and her power came to usurp her husband’s. After his death, she became even more controlling. Marriage in the group was abolished, with Anna matching up couples to spend nights together in bed to train them in resisting temptation.

Over time, the sect grew, including new members from Sweden. It was this group’s emigration that inspired Selma Lagerlöf to write her novel Jerusalem, based in part on what she learned spending time at the American Colony, as the commune was called. For her body of writing, Lagerlöf later became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The main building where the group lived still stands and is now The American Colony Hotel. If you’d like to learn more about the Spaffords and their Jerusalem church, you can read Jane Fletcher Geniesse’s American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem, from which much of this information is drawn.

Depth and complication.

Lilias Trotter, missionary to Algeria, thought a lot about the importance of resisting the world’s attractions, too, though her beliefs were less extreme, and more orthodox, than the Spaffords’. Trotter, born in 1853, became a skilled watercolor painter, and the celebrated art critic John Ruskin took her under his wing. Trotter wrote to a friend that Ruskin said if she devoted herself completely to art “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be Immortal.” She did not see giving her life to painting as her path, though, and instead gave herself to serving the downtrodden women of London through the YWCA. When she reached her early thirties, she felt God calling her to mission work in North Africa, but she was turned down by the North African Mission due to a heart condition. She went anyway, along with two other single women. She served there for 40 years, founding the Algiers Mission Band, which later merged with the North African Mission. She died in Algiers at the age of 75.

Trotter’s story would be largely forgotten if not for the diligence of Miriam Huffman Rockness, who researched her life, wrote her biography, and maintains the Lilias Trotter blog. Her blog has been my main source for learning about Trotter, and it’s there that I found out how Trotter’s writings became the inspiration for a classic hymn. It started with Trotter creating a devotional pamphlet titled Focussed. In it, she uses the French word attrait in place of attraction, writing,

Turn full your soul’s vision to Jesus and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him, and the Divine “attrait” by which God’s saints are made, even in this 20th century, will lay hold of you.  For “He is worthy” to have all there is to be had in the heart that He has died to win.

Do you see traces of a hymn in there? Helen Lemmel did, and in 1922 she produced “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full on His wonderful face;
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

And now, if I may, I’d like to circle back to Thomas Dorsey.

After writing his biggest gospel song, Dorsey went on to produce more church music and co-founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses. “Precious Lord” became a favorite of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, and as reported by the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, shortly before he was assassinated King asked blues saxophonist Ben Branch to play it at a rally that evening. “Play that song tonight,” said MLK. “I want you to play it like you’ve never played it before in your life.” Mahalia Jackson, whom Dorsey had previously mentored, sang “Precious Lord” at King’s funeral.

When my way groweth drear, precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone;
Hear my cry, hear my call, hold my hand lest I fall;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I’m weak, I am worn;
Thru the storm, thru the night, lead me on to the light;
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

We love our missionary stories and our hymn stories, but we do them a disservice when we omit important people and details.

Depth and complication.


(Rebecca Hopkins, “How Black Missionaries Are Being Written Back into the Story,” Christianity Today, December 13, 2021; Steven Kaplan, “Gospel Man,” Horizon, Volume 25, Issue 7, American Heritage, 1982; Say Amen, Somebody, directed by George T. Nierenberg, GTN, 1982; Jane Fletcher Geniesse, American Priestess: The Extraordinary Story of Anna Spafford and the American Colony in Jerusalem, Doubleday, 2008; Miriam Huffman Rockness, “A Brush in the Hand of God,” Lilias Trotter, April 4, 2014; Rockness, “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus,” Lilias Trotter, October 26, 2012; “Ben Branch,” National Civil Rights Museum)

[photo: “Sand Dune Patterns and Shapes,” by Jeff Sullian, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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