There is a myth about the origin of many of our hymns that goes like this: “The melodies of some of our great hymns of the Christian faith were originally measure tunes.”
Although it has been debunked many times, the myth will not go away. The problem is a misunderstanding of musical terminology.
Hymn writers used and still use meter tunes, but that doesn’t mean what we think. The correct terminology is a “bar form”, which is a specific musical form where there are two identical or similar lines followed by a contrasting line. This form would be notated musically, as AAB or in some cases, AABA. (An example of this form would be the anthem “Come Thou Source of Every Blessing”.)
Today’s anthem was not written in a pure, classical meter form, but the melody was associated with a well-known old song, “The Ballad of Captain Kidd”, the infamous Scottish pirate.
This 18-verse ballad tells a very dark and startling story about an arrogant man who, in the late 1600s, rejected his pious upbringing, scorned God’s laws, and terrorized and murdered many people. Eventually he was hanged, publicly, in a cage and left to rot along the Thames.
The first stanza says:
My name was William Kidd, as I sailed, as I sailed,
My name was William Kidd when I sailed,
My name was William Kidd; The laws of God that I have forbidden,
So badly I did, while I was sailing.
Unlike this ballad of a ruined sinful life, is an American Folk Spiritual, which shares the same tune and structure. WHAT WONDERFUL LOVE IS THAT? is a song of praise to God for his great grace and mercy. It originated in revivalist camp meetings in the southern United States.
Written music was rare in the early 1800s and spiritual songs were transmitted orally. Thus, to facilitate memorization, the authors kept their texts simple and used a lot of repetitions.
It is a personal and introspective anthem that speaks to our souls. And, while it’s simple, it’s not superficial.
It begins with a deep question and a chilling feeling of overwhelming fear. What kind of love would cause the Lord to “put a terrible curse on my soul”?
It is reminiscent of another hymn, written by Charles Wesley. The first verse of his song, And Can It Be, ends with similar language, “Amazing love!” How can you, my God, die for me?
WHAT WONDERFUL LOVE IS THAT? is a simple, biblical summary of the gospel. It is the love of God who sent His Son to earth to bear the penalty for our sins. Therefore, we must praise him in this life and expect with the assurance that we will sing his praises for eternity.
Ralph M. Petersen and his wife, Kathy, are the owners of the OLDE TOWNE EMPORIUM at 212 E. Main St. in Rogersville, Tennessee. Your comments are welcome. You can contact him at [email protected] or by phone at (951) 321 9235.