Robert Robinson: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. 
Ecclesiastes 2:14 (NIV)

When I was younger I was in the Boy Scouts and at one point we began a relatively serious study of survival and the techniques associated with taking care of oneself in various wildernesses and with limited resources.  It is a delicate thing to balance the existence of a human body against such challenging circumstances and it is no small task to not only maintain the metabolic processes necessary for sustaining life, but to also combat the mental hurdles one is presented with in most (if not all) survival situations.  One of the things my scoutmaster told us then has stuck with me through the years since my youth.  He looked around the room full of mostly teen-aged boys and explained that part of embracing the mindset necessary to live through a survival situation was to come to terms with the fact that, above all else, every single person seated in that room will one day cease to live.

It is a sobering thought to grapple when you've barely begun your own life.

But no doubt an important one.  Survival requires a calm and persistent rationale, one without panic. Fear, to paraphrase George Washington, is a flame best stoked gently and guarded carefully lest it should consume.  Fear keeps us alive, but it can also paralyze us and so must be our constant companion, but never a trusted friend.

Robert Robinson (1735-1790) composed Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing in 1757 at the age of 22.  

Robinson was born in Swaffham, Norfolk to a Scottish father who was an exciseman (a sort of tax collector) and a mother who was born to a wealthy family. When Robert was five his father died and he was left alone with his mother who we are told was already struggling to support him.  Her father, who did not approve of Robert's father's social stature, disowned his grandson and Robert's uncle was left with the job of supplying for the boy's education. We know that Robert was an avid reader and had a considerable interest in the application of Christian baptism, but didn't possess the social standing necessary at the time to pursue a life in the clergy and so he was apprenticed to a barber in London.

There is a story that has been corroborated along a few sources that claim Robinson had fallen in with a rough crowd while in London.  On one outing, they came across a fortune teller who they persuaded with alcohol and convinced her to tell them their futures.  The story goes that Robinson's future was that he'd live to see children and grandchildren and as a result it caused him to rethink his life's choices and eventually turn towards religion and become a minister.

The story of the drunken seer concludes with Robert wandering in darkness for approximately three years whereupon he happens to hear the Calvinist pastor George Whitefield, a renowned evangelical Methodist who was instrumental in spreading the Great Awakening throughout Europe and the American colonies as well. Robert first heard Whitfield around the time he was 17.  Long story short, he leaves his post as hairdressing apprentice and begins to preach regularly.  Over time he also would supplement his income with odd jobs and farming, but his true passion would lie in the pulpit.  It is curious that he only wrote a handful of hymns and only two of real consequence, one of which we will listen to today.

Another, less verifiable tale comes from the latter portion of Robert's life when sharing a carriage with a young lady she began humming Come Thou Fount. She grew aware that he had overheard her and apologizes to which Robinson supposedly replies, "Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then."

There's no real evidence that exchange took place and looking subjectively at Robinson's early life of losing his father, his abandonment by his mother's family, his young apprenticeship to an unfamiliar trade in an unfamiliar city all lend to the thought that he indeed was "prone to wander" and justify creating a dramatic story of this nature.  His reconciliation of faith gives the text of Come Thou Fount an autobiographical flavor and as such he is somewhat of a poster boy for the tenets of divine grace.

In the US, the text was eventually set to a folk tune called Nettleton which was written by either John Wyeth or Asahel Nettletonin.  In the UK, Normandy by C Bost, is the preferred treatment.  Nettleton is a simple melody, repetitive and written in A-A-B-A form.  The tune has been set numerous times, by Charles Ives in the 20th century and by several modern artists since.  It is a frequently heard hymn both in traditional and contemporary protestant worship services to this day.

The text itself has undergone several revisions following its inception, perhaps most apparent being the subtraction or addition of the "Here I raise my Ebenezer" line, most likely because it causes modern individuals to recall scenes from the Muppet Christmas Carol.

In reality, "Ebenezer" is a reference to 1 Samuel where God helps the biblical character Samuel and the Israelites fend off the attacking Philistines.  Ebenezer roughly translates from Hebrew to mean 'stone of help' and Samuel erected a stone monument near the battle to honor the assistance their people received from God.  It's use in Robinson's text comes out of a statement expressing gratitude from God for the protection offered thus far, while also implying that the journey home is not yet complete.  

Wikipedia itself cites at least 10 variations of the text throughout the different publications and renditions of the work throughout time.  One almost uniform omission is of Robinson's fifth and final stanza, reproduced here:

O that day when freed from sinning, 
I shall see Thy lovely face; 
Cloth├Ęd then in blood washed linen 
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace; 
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry, 
Take my ransomed soul away; 
Send thine angels now to carry  
Me to realms of endless day.

And to be perfectly honest, the fact that it does regularly get cut is complete crap.  The whole work is about accepting the fact that we all screw up at a consistent pace and on a regular basis.  He's constantly asking for the intervention of divine grace to supercede his own selfish wants and desires and to retrain his mind and heart to a more Christian mindset. Part of that comes with the acceptance of the fact that one day we are all going to cease to exist.  Part of that is the understanding that our time here and now is so very precious.

I've written about this before, but I tend to get a bit weary of the breathless and dogmatic teachings of Christianity in relation to the salvation of humanity.  The redeeming death of Jesus is obviously a large part of Christian faith, but eternity in heaven versus ~80 years farting around this rock is a very lopsided juxtaposition, so much so that it defies comprehension.  Robinson in his own way is seeking strength and compassion from his creator to execute Jesus' vision of humanity on Earth, right now, in his own time.  If we've got all eternity to kick up our feet and chill on the cloud-tops, then it seems prudent to get to work while we're down here on this pale blue dot.

My grandmother passed away three Friday's ago.

She probably would not have liked much of the music I've talked about here in this online listening experiment.  She probably wouldn't even want to understand that it was on the internet, nor what the internet actually is.  I wouldn't go as far to call her and my grandfather Luddites, but when they signed up for cable TV it was somewhat Earth-shattering.

It was also like 1998.

Full disclosure: That is not my grandmother.
She had a very defined vision of the afterlife in her mind.  It was biblically based out of her life-long education in the Methodist church.  Out of all the people in my life, her's was the most unquestioning faith I have ever known.  She knew what Robinson knew when he wrote that fifth stanza, and she lived that to her last.

My faith tends to be a bit more towards where I imagine my grandfather's mind dwelled.  He never felt completely at ease in a chapel and it was thought that the church might actually fall over should he poke his head inside.  But his spiritual place could not be found in something fabricated by the hands of man, and so he found his walk took him into creation, in nature itself.  He was a selfless man and his evangelism was quiet, often silent as a stream percolating from a hillside.

This blog has evolved a fair amount since it's inception almost two years ago.  In its history it has had three of what I'll term 'leaves of absence'.  Gaps between entries that vary from 3 weeks to a couple months in length.  All three correspond to specific circumstances in my life that prevented whatever muse I summon to actually write this crap from inspiring me to get the written word transposed upon the flickering screen.

I'd like to think that this process is anemic and removed from my own present emotional and mental state, but the truth of it is I write from personal experience and I always have. Each piece of music that has been presented here has had some sort of impact or correlation to events, choices, or relationships that I have experienced in the past 31 or so years.  In that sense this blog becomes a tapestry of sorts of yours truly.

I've since discovered that the rationale I utilize to comprehend and interpret my emotions is like a large desk scattered with papers.  Papers symbolizing the various experiences that elicit emotional responses.  When an event occurs, the paper is placed on the desk on top and I endeavor to find a stack in which it can find a suitable home.  On occasion a paper's arrival can be a disruptive force, serving to uncover other papers that have long since been forgotten and buried underneath layers upon layers of content.

I used to think this was bottling up, but it's a very different process.  At any time I can revisit the stacks and leaf through these states of mind and exist in that moment once more. Or I can choose to ignore them and let the dust fall where it may. I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's theory of time travel as described in the book, Slaughterhouse-Five. He explains that our experience of time is akin to being strapped to a moving train car while peering at the grand canyon through a telescope, one tiny section at a time. We experience time in a uniform, forward manner, but in the book the protagonist drifts from moment to moment as though he were a leaf on the wind.

At my mind's desk I can see my life set before me in the scattered papers.  Some are much more worn than others and, to the contrary, some have never been touched.  So when these papers arrive and sort of mess up everything I often get these unfamiliar recollections thrown to the surface of my consciousness, whether I like it or not. As I said before, occasionally this unintended reorganization serves to disrupt this process I utilize to write, and I think, perhaps, that Mr. Robinson, in his own way, suffered this phenomenon as well.

So today, in this moment, I celebrate him and his final stanza in the sense that we know nothing beyond this present in which we exist and the stack of papers that lay before us, save for the fact that the papers will one day stop arriving.  We have no idea when they will stop, nor what will be the penultimate circumstance of their cessation. We only know what is going on right now, and as a result no other instant should hold more importance.

Neither of the renditions we will hear today include the final stanza, but both provide a sense of contrast for the scope of this work.  From simple folk tune to a magnificent opus.

In spite of the internet, I'd like to believe that my Grandmother would've approved.

See you next Friday.