Story was wanted and told
By the Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: 1 Corinthians 15:3-4
Devotional text: Matthew 28:18-20
From time to time, I like to tell the back story of the hymns we sing.
Today, I am looking at two traditional hymns that were first put into print more than 150 years ago. These hymns are “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” and “I Love to Tell the Story.”
Both hymns come from a longer poem written by Arabella Katherine Hankey in 1866. She is also known as Kate Hankey or Katherine Hankey. The title of her complete poetry book on which the two hymns are based is “The Old, Old Story.” The book is in two parts. Part One is called “The Story Wanted” and Part Two is titled “The Story Told.”
Hankey’s poem itself was first published in two parts. Part One, which consisted of eight stanzas with four lines each, was published in January 1866. Part Two, consisting of 50 stanzas, was published during the same year but in November. The story surrounding this poem and the resulting hymns is an interesting one.
Let’s begin by looking at the life of its author.
Born in Clapham, Surrey, England, in 1834, Hankey developed an evangelistic zeal from the time of her youth. She was the daughter of a wealthy banker, and her family were members of the evangelical Anglican Church.
It was during her teen years that Hankey was influenced by the Clapham Sect, which was known for its anti-slavery views and mission work. She began teaching Sunday school classes for young girls and, later, Bible studies for young working girls throughout London.
Hankey had the gift of the written word. As she held those Bible studies, she was also writing poetry and various Christian tracts to give to her students. Her own enthusiasm and love for the Lord helped to influence others who would become missionaries. Hankey remained devoted to God all of her life, always ready to add a word of witness or a rhyme depicting the glory and love of God.
Later in life, she traveled to South Africa to work in the mission field as a nurse. While there, she joined her invalid brother, who also worked as a missionary in South Africa.
It was while Hankey was in South Africa that she became interested in all foreign missions. As she experienced life there, she was able to understand the hardships and ruggedness of mission life, as well as the joy of serving people for God.
Part of her experiences there included travel by oxcart to reach her destinations. While someone might find such a mode of travel difficult, Hankey was interested in such different modes of transportation as well as the variety of cultures she would meet. Later in life, these experiences would lead her to give the royalties from her writings to the foreign mission field.
Arabella Katherine Hankey died in London on May 9, 1911, at the age of 77.
When Hankey was in her early 30s, she suffered from a severe illness (we do not know what it was). However, in order to become well, she needed to be bed-ridden for most of one year. It was during this period of time that she wrote “The Old, Old Story.”
In the second stanza of Part One, Hankey wrote of being “weak and weary.” From her own words, Hankey said that was exactly how she felt at that time. Her illness was in its difficult stages and her body felt worn out.
The words found in Part One are the words that became the hymn “Tell Me the Old, Old Story.” In her own words, speaking of her needs at that time, we read of the need to tell the story of Jesus. In this first part she used words such as simply, softly, slowly, always and often until we find the last line stating “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”
Writing those words out of her own need, Hankey ended Part One with just those eight stanzas. Again, in her owns words, Hankey stated, “I put the poem aside then and didn’t pick it up again until November. I completed the poem in that month.”
Now, we begin to look at the men who composed the music and published the two hymns that would become popular during their own era.
First, we have William Howard Doane, who had heard a reading of Part One of Hankey’s poem while attending an International YMCA convention in Montreal, Canada, in 1867. The man who read the poem was an Englishman known as Major-General Russell.
As Russell read the words from the crumbled paper he held in his hand, tears began to flow from his eyes. Before the reading was over, it was reported that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Doane was so taken by the words he asked for a copy to take with him.
It was a few weeks later that Doane took out the words to read again. He was making a long and hot journey by stagecoach from Glens Falls, N.Y., to the White Mountains.
Remembering how the poem had moved so many people in Canada, he began putting music to the words. Although the poem was written in eight stanzas of four lines each, the hymn used two stanzas for each verse, making the hymn four verses long.
By the time Doane reached his destination that evening, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” was ready to be sung, and the guests staying at the Crawford House that night sang it for the very first time.
This is not the end of the story.
Next week, we will look at the 50-stanza Part Two and the hymn “I Love to Tell the Story.” We will read of the poem’s influence on William Fischer, Paul Bliss, Ira Sankey and others.