Trust and Obey – John H. Sammis (lyrics) Daniel Towner (music)
On reflection, it seems that music has been a constant presence in my life, going back to my very earliest memories, singing with my older sister and mother, as well as extended family sing/play-alongs at ours or my aunt Shelly Lofftus’ house. However, for a consistent weekly musical experience for those very early, pre-piano lesson years, the music making that I was immersed in was singing during Sunday school and worship services at Christ Bible Church in Hamilton, Montana. A typical order of service in that fundamentalist evangelical church involved a lot of congregational singing with 3-5 songs sung at the beginning, another 2-3 mid-service, and a last hymn to close after the sermon and a closing prayer. Services were straightforward and simple, with only a piano (later an electric organ) accompanying the singing, and solo vocal or piano pieces were typically only used during the offering portion. Thus, the bulk of the music making in our worship was congregational, and everyone of all ages took part, including the three-year-old version of myself. It was a marvelous experience, and very formative for me, both spiritually and musically, largely because it was designed to be inclusive, and very dependent on the congregation for its worship of Christ.
It has been written about elsewhere that in today’s worship settings, congregational singing is on the decline in many churches around the USA, and I find that I agree that the PowerPoint-driven worship service, led by a rock band and worship leader, is not conducive to impel me personally to join in worship in those congregations. Mostly this is due to the fact that churches rarely include musical notation on the slides (only lyrics), the worship leaders often lead the congregations astray with emotive Mariah Carey-esque melisma that bear little resemblance to the actual tune, and lastly, if you are a visitor to that particular church, you may not have ever heard the song before, and have no way to learn it on the spot, except by repetition. (However, I love old-fashioned African-American ‘call and response’ gospel tunes that are not typically written down, but ARE sung and learned in real time.) To be clear, this is not to say that God is not worshipped in spirit and truth in these settings – I believe that He is – however, in these settings, I struggle to do so easily or well. There are always too many professional and spiritual distractions for me. I have found that simply led and accompanied full congregational singing is best for me, and much of that can easily come from the old-fashioned method of hymn singing with hymnals.
When my mother passed away in 2002, I found a hymnal in her music collection from that church (All-American Church Hymnal, compiled by Karl Smith and John T. Benson, John T. Benson Publishing Co, Nashville), and I regularly open it and play through the hymns, especially at Christmas time, because it was those harmonizations which I first learned and sang at my first Christmas services. So many of the hymns in this collection are firmly welded into my musical soul: No.1 “All Hail the Power,” No. 5 ”Faith of Our Fathers,” No. 12 “The Old Rugged Cross,” No. 115 “Holy, Holy, Holy,” No. 197 “A Mighty Fortress,” No. 198 “Onward Christian Soldiers,” and No. 40 “Trust and Obey.” So many of these songs and others were reinforced over the years by summers at Christ’s Bible Camp, both in chapel services and my favorite, a cappella singing around a campfire with a number of believers harmonizing each of these old hymns with a knowledge and surety born from singing them their entire lives.
“Trust and Obey” is quite typical of the hymns written in the late 19th century and found all throughout my mother’s hymn book: easily understood lyrics, a straightforward tune that is easily remembered, and a harmonization that is equally simple and effective. The story of its creation is well known: one night at a Dwight L. Moody evangelistic meeting in Brockton, Massachusetts, a young man stood up to testify about his confidence of salvation. He said, “I am not quite sure,” meaning that he wasn’t really certain that God would save him from his sins––and then he continued, “But I’m going to trust, and I’m going to obey”––meaning that he planned to trust God for his salvation and to do what he could to obey God’s will. Composer Daniel Towner was part of the Moody team that night, took note of the young man’s words, and contacted John Stammis, a Californian preacher who incorporated the last words of the young convert, and added the verses as we know them today. (quoted and paraphrased from Richard Niell Donovan at Lectionary.org)
The message is quite easy to understand, even as it may be difficult to practice – I think that we as believers in Christ continually fight to accomplish it. Some days it can be easy, and some days it can be quite hard. While ‘there is nothing new under the sun,’ I believe modern believers have difficulty with trusting anyone or anything, because our lives are constantly bombarded by life experiences of betrayals, falsehoods, moral relativity, and flexible standards of justice. Since trust must be constantly reevaluated and re-earned in our earthly lives, I find that it can be hard to remember to trust in God. However, this simple hymn can easily become an earworm that can pop up at any time of day or night, either lyrics or tune delivering its message: “For there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” This usually elicits a smile, even in the midst of frustration, doubt, anger, grief, or even when I am in the midst of some kind of small-scale rebellion against God. Often times, this hymn’s simplicity of message maddens me (as so many other tenets of a faith in Christ often do), because it distills a lifetime of complex discipleship into a three-word instruction. And when followed, it is rewarded by the greatest possible reward.
It is my great wish for all of the readers of this blog that they are able to experience congregational hymn singing in the old fashioned manner which I described in some of the previous paragraphs: whether this is in a church worship service, a shape-note-Southern-Harmony hymn sing, or just an informal gathering with a number of other believers around the kitchen table (after cleaning up the dishes after a good spaghetti carbonara), please lift your voices in joy, love, supplication, grief, entreaty, and worship God with the instruments you were born with. Sing No. 40 from the All American Church Hymnal, and let this marvelous earworm work its way into you – it will return when you need to hear it, and often when you least want to hear it. However, take heed; its message is a necessary answer to much of the uncertainty of our daily lives.
A cappella version of a congregation singing “Trust and Obey”
Frank Felice is an award-winning composer and musician who currently teaches as an associate professor of composition, theory and electronic music in the School of Music, Jordan College of Arts at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. His music has been performed extensively in the U.S. as well as garnering performances in Brazil, Argentina, Japan, Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, Austria, the Philippines, the Czech Republic and Hungary. In addition to musical interests, he pursues his creative muse through painting, poetry, cooking, home brewing, paleontology, theology, philosophy, and basketball. He is very fortunate to be married to mezzo-soprano Mitzi Westra.