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  • Writer's pictureAll Saints Episcopal Church

Hymn of the Week #2 - "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing"

Updated: Jul 8, 2023


For our second “hymn of the week”, we’ll examine #686, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, sung to the tune “Nettleton”. We'll sing this Sunday, June 18.


According to Hymnary.org, this hymn appears in 2,179 hymnals, making it quite well-known. The lyrics date back to the mid-18th century, while the tune first appeared in a compilation in the early 19th century. Surprisingly, it became a new hymn for All Saints during my tenure as the Director of Music, and it was not included in a hymnal of the Episcopal Church before The Hymnal 1982 was introduced.




The words were written by Robert Robinson (1735-1790), who was raised by a single mother with the ambition for him to become a clergyman in the Church of England. However, due to their impoverished circu


mstances, at the age of 15, Robert began apprenticing with a barber in London. During this time, he associated with a risky crowd, as noted by Michael Hawn:


A favorite line in the last stanza, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” is thought to be particularly autobiographical, referring to Robinson’s early life, when his mother sent him to London to be an apprentice. It was during this time, according to hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck, that “he associated with a notorious gang of hoodlums and lived a debauched life” until he came under the spell of Whitefield.[1]


George Whitefield (1714-1770) was one of the founders of Methodism and the evangelical movement. He met the Wesley brothers at Pembroke College, Oxford. After receiving his degree, he was ordained as a deacon and immediately began preaching in the church. A few years later, in 1736, he was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. Instead of being assigned to a parish church, Whitefield became an "itinerant preacher," traveling and preaching wherever he went. In 1740, he traveled to America and became a part of the "Great Awakening." According to Vaughan Scribner, he preached at least 18,000 times to an audience of over 10 million. [2]


An aside, Whitefield had a complicated relationship with slavery - he was a slave owner and advocated for their use in Georgia. (And, this is why I'm including his cross-eyed picture . . . though he was actually cross-eyed!) However, he was also one of the first to preach to slaves, and also advocated for their humane treatment. Indeed, upon Whitefield's death, Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), who was a slave, wrote a poem "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield" in 1770. The first line calls Whitefield a "happy saint".[3]


After hearing Whitefield preach in 1755 and converting to Christianity, Robert Robinson followed Wesley and other evangelical preachers. He first preached in a Calvinistic Methodist chapel in Suffolk in 1755 and later founded an independent congregation in Norwich. In 1759, he was rebaptized and moved towards Baptist perspectives, beginning a long association with Stone Yard Baptist Church in Cambridge, where he served as a pastor from 1761 to 1790. It was in 1758, after his encounter with Whitefield but before his rebaptism and alignment with the Baptists, that he wrote the text for "Come Thou Fount."


The text has undergone several alterations since its original publication but continues to be a beloved hymn of the church. For example, in the United Methodist Hymnal, which I grew up with, we sing in the second stanza: "Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by thy help I'm come." You might wonder, what is an Ebenezer? It is derived directly from the book of Samuel, where Samuel sets up a stone and then declares, "Thus far the Lord has helped us." Therefore, Ebenezer means "Stone of Help." However, in the Hymnal 1982, the words were changed to "Here I find my greatest treasure, hither by thy help, I've come."


I personally lament this change every time we sing it because it eliminates a wonderful teaching moment! It seems I was not alone in this sentiment, as when the Episcopal Church published the "African American" hymnal, "Lift Every Voice and Sing II," in 1993, they included the original "Ebenezer" wording.


Furthermore, a fourth verse was omitted in both hymnals (and in most hymnals from 1760 onward):


O that Day when freed from sinning, I shall see thy lovely Face; Clothed then in blood-washed Linnen [sic] How I’ll sing thy sovereign grace; Come, my Lord, no longer tarry, Take my ransom’d Soul away; Send thine Angels now to carry Me to realms of endless Day.


The tune we most often used with this text is known as “Nettleton”. According to the Companion to the Baptist Hymnal,


"Nettleton first appeared as a two-part tune in John Wyeth's Repository of Sacred Music, Part Second (1813, p. 112), where it was named Hallelujah. In the Index it is identified as a new tune, and no composer's name is given. The tune has been attributed to some to Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844), a well-known evangelist of the early nineteenth century, who compiled Village Hymns (1825). However, this compilation contained no music, and there is no evidence that Nettleton wrote any tunes during his life . . . It is not known where the tune name first appeared or who was responsible for it."[3]


An interesting association is mentioned in the Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, stating that it is "one of a group related to the folk melody 'Go tell Aunt Tabby (Aunt Rhody, Aunt Nancy, etc.), her old grey goose is dead.'"


Regardless of its origins, the harmonization used in the Hymnal 1982 was created by the incomparable Gerre Hancock (1934-2012), the longtime choirmaster at New York's St. Thomas Church and mentor to many through their Choir of Men & Boys and his teaching.


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