Thursday, August 9, 2012

What Wondrous Love Is This?

This one goes out to a very good friend of mine, Solveig!

Title: What Wondrous Love Is This?

Tune: Wondrous Love

Numeric Outline:

Author: Anonymous (North American Folk Hymn)

Composer: W. Walker
     This hymn has a long standing history that is not very well known. It is known, however, that the tune was discovered by composer William Walker on his journey through the Appalachian region of America. Though the tune had been around for many years, it was passed on by rote, and not written down. Walker decided in 1835 that he would change that, and added the hymn to his collection Southern Harmony. The Appalachian region is well known for having many Irish and Scottish immigrants, which is shown in the hymns haunting text and minor tune. The hymn is written in a way that made it easy to pass on from generation to generation, repetition of lyrics. The hymn was written in the early 1800's, a time when hymnals were scarce and music was rarely written down. To make it easier for people to learn hymns (Especially in the time of the Second Great Awakening), the author would often times write the same lyrics over and over again to drive home the point, while still keeping the text simple and easy to learn.
     This hymn came at a time in American history when the country was still very young and was still trying to get a solid grasp of being it's own Sovereign Nation. A popular style of singing during this time was Shape Note Singing, which is a form of singing that uses shapes to denote which pitch should be sung, instead of the traditional European notation that we find in most music now-a-days. In order for the shape note singing to be done correctly, the congregation would be divided into four different sections, and each section was given a different part to sing. This was easier for people to sing, because most people during that time had no idea how to read music, and Shape Note Singing was a way to take something like music and give it to everyone, even the unlearned. William Walker was known for writing several different tune books containing melodies in which he often took from their traditional setting, and wrote them down, publishing them as his own.
     Walker was born in Martin Mills, South Carolina in 1807 and grew up just outside of Spartanburg, where, in order to distinguish the difference between himself and other William Walkers, he was nicknamed "Singing Billy." in 1835 he published a collection of four-shape Shape Note tune books entitled Southern Harmony. This was used for many years and was revised several different times, the final of which was printed in 1854 and is still used today in Kentucky at several different camp meetings. In 1846 Walker published another tune book that was supposed to be used as an index to Southern Harmony. The Publication was entitled The Southern and Western Pocket Harmonist, which contained several different camp meeting tunes. in 1867 Walker published another tune book entitled Christian Harmony where he adopted a new shape notation that contained seven different shapes instead of the traditional four shapes. Christian Harmony shared many similarities with Southern Harmony, but the biggest difference of note was the addition of the Alto harmony in tunes that previously did not contain that particular harmony. William Walker lived a long life, and finally passed away in Spartanburg, South Carolina in 1875. He has an infamy that continues still today with the singing of traditional Shape Note tunes at conventions around the country and especially groups such as the Sacred Harp Singers Of Georgia and Alabama.
The Text:

(1) What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this
That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

(2) When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down
Beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

(3) To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb,
Who is the great I AM,
While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing,
While millions join the theme, I will sing.

(4) And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free
I’ll sing His love for me,
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
And through eternity I’ll sing on.

The Hymn:

This is the traditional Shape note version, below is the version you are most likely to come across in a regular hymnal!

My Take on the Hymn:

     This hymn is incredibly haunting and beautiful, putting into words the question that most of us Christians have every day, what did I do to deserve such a wonderful love from God and from Christ? The answer cannot be answered any other way than by simply saying, God has given each of us the gift of grace. The hymn to me is an offering of thanks to Christ for laying aside his crown as King and humbling himself in the eyes of God. Christ not only took on the sin of man, but became the sin of man and was so shameful that even God could not look at his own son. The greatest gift that we have was that Christ was able to do this and to become the Lamb who was slain to save our sins. The third verse says that "....To God and to the Lamb, Who is the great I AM," which is showing that after Christ died, he rose and became one with God and became not only the Lamb, but he is I AM, the great savior of the world. The last verse for me is the most important because it says that when we are free from the grip of death we will sing Gods praise throughout eternity. What a wonderful opportunity to be able to praise Christ and praise the wonders of God for eternity, and we owe it all to a love that we cannot fully understand. Because we cannot understand this love, we must ask, What Wondrous Love Is This?


  1. Thank you Evan. We sang this hymn in services tonight and it mystifies me.

  2. I found this page while researching hymn, because it's on an album I recently bought and it is so wonderful! Check out Matthew Smith's version, with a bridge he wrote between the 3rd and 4th stanzas:

  3. Thanks for this research! I came across your page while looking for evidence that the song "My name is Samuel Hall" was sung to this tune. I haven't found any so far (just as well - "Samuel Hall" is the ballad of an unrepentant thief who is hanged, and it's a rather profane song).

  4. (same "anonymous" as above) I did want to point out a mistake. The last sentence of your last paragraph, "He has an infamy that continues still today..." The word "infamy" means "bad fame". Remember how Franklin Roosevelt described the Peal Harbor bombing as "A day that will live in infamy"? I recommend correcting "infamy" to "fame" or even "celebrity".

  5. Beautiful. Just beautiful...

    Thank you for this moving treatise about an even more moving hymn.