'Blest Be the Tie That Binds'
We all love to sing in worship. In fact, our churches are notable for the way whole congregations sing so heartily. At times this is an important witness to the wider world. Think of those occasions, such as weddings or funerals, when there are often unconverted family members or workmates present. Few of them are in the habit of attending church – or even singing. The sound of a hundred or more people earnestly singing God’s truth back to Him has sometimes moved such people deeply. Several times they have told me so themselves
It is good that we do this, but it does not just happen by itself. The habit of hearty singing, it seems to me, needs to be taught as well as caught. One generation needs to pass on the love of hymn singing to the next – with conscious effort. Children are helped in this both by their parents and by their church as a whole. Probably the most important way that children learn to sing in worship is from the example of their parents. If parents love to sing, their children will pick up on their attitude and grow to love it too. Conversely, if parents have a negative, critical attitude to what is sung in worship, children will often be half-hearted in their own singing. It stands to reason. This is the passing on of attitudes that are ‘caught’ by example.
But it also needs to be taught, and it’s worth thinking about some of the ways to do this. Mostly it has to do with the way we discuss singing and the content of hymns; and the way we actually sing them together. Surely homes have a part to play in this important aspect of worship. Good hymns contain a lot of biblical truth, and a useful thing is to discuss the ways the hymn develops these truths, verse by verse. (You could also discuss the ways the tune matches these truths, e.g. joyfully or repentantly or reflectively). Some families I know include hymn singing in their family worship at home. In this way the children learn the hymns, often by heart, through frequent use. This is a good way of encouraging your children to enjoy the hymns, to appreciate the truth that is in them, and to love the tunes that go with them.
There is one more thing that helps this process greatly. And that is a knowledge of the hymn writer’s life, and the circumstances surrounding the actual writing of the hymn. Have you ever found that you appreciated a book or a poem much more when a teacher told you something about the life of the author or poet, and explained what was going on in that person’s life when he wrote that specific work? Somehow it comes alive, doesn’t it? It helps you greatly to identify with it and make it your own. You understand it. Well, the same thing can happen with the hymns we sing. I thought I would try to help you by telling you the story behind some of them in the next few months.
To begin, here are some thoughts on John Fawcett’s Blest be the tie that binds.
Background to ‘Blest be the tie that binds’
I’m almost certain that none of you will have heard of John Fawcett. And yet, all of you will have sung at one time or another (probably many times) his hymn, Blest be the tie that binds. This is a hymn we often sing when the subject of fellowship, friendship or saying goodbye comes up. Perhaps because of this, I admit that I have been inclined to think of it as a bit of a tear-jerker; and somewhat too sentimental. However, since I came across the story behind this hymn I have come to appreciate it a great deal more. In fact, it comes from the pen of a man whose theological convictions are very close to our own; and out of circumstances that give genuine cause for moved hearts.
John Fawcett lived in the second half of the eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth (1740-1817). He lived all his life in small towns (probably more like villages) in the Yorkshire moors in England. You could say that his circumstances were quite obscure: the scenes of his life were in a remote backwater. This was especially so given the communications of his day. There were no railways, mail was very slow, and the only way of moving around was on foot or horseback over very poor, barely-formed roads. News would travel slowly from London to a place like Hebden Bridge (his village in Yorkshire).
Fawcett was one of a large family, and his mother was left a widow when his father died of a fever at the age of fifty. She was a Christian lady, and encouraged him to attend the Bradford parish church (Bradford was the nearest town in Yorkshire). The lecturer at this church was also the headmaster of the local school, and he taught young John the classics. Another man, the Presbyterian minister in Bradford, also taught John Latin. He was clearly a keen young student. By his mid-teens he was following an apprentice ship (fatherless, there was no family money to enable him to study full time). When John was 16 George Whitefield arrived in Bradford on his travels around the north of England, and he heard the famous preacher preach on John 3:14: ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.’ This sermon led to John’s conversion; and subsequently he gravitated towards the Methodists and other non-Conformist churches in Bradford. These were the places he more often heard the teaching that had changed his heart so greatly.
In 1758 Fawcett formally joined the Particular Baptists, the church he stayed with for the rest of his life. The Particular Baptists were strongly Calvinistic in doctrine; and until the middle of the nineteenth century, Baptists of Reformed persuasion were in fact the majority among English Baptists. (The missionary William Carey and preacher Charles Spurgeon are two of the best-known of their number.) The same year he married Susannah Skirrow, five years his senior. By this time he was also trying his hand at writing – both prose and poetry. He definitely had a gift for using words, and not long after gave up his secular work to devote himself to the Baptist ministry. In 1764 he settled at Wainsgate and afterwards at Hebden Bridge, both of which were in the parish of Halifax.
Fawcett, it appears, was a born pastor. He loved the work of the ministry, he was a genuine scholar, a devoted pastor, and a very gifted preacher and hymn writer. He simply loved his people; and worked hard at bringing the Gospel to their hearts, and visiting them. Apparently he preached about 200 sermons a year (around four a week). But it seems this area was not a fertile harvest field: Fawcett described it as ‘a dry and barren place.’ He must have worked very hard, because such was his reputation as a preacher that a gallery had to be erected in the church to accommodate the large congregations, many of whom traveled long distances to hear him.
A Call from London
And his people loved him. Of this there is no doubt, for we see it in the events that led to the writing of Blest be the tie that binds. By the time Fawcett had been in the ministry for eight years, his abilities must have come to the attention of others in his denomination in London. How, we do not know. Possibly news of his preaching had reached the metropolis; perhaps some had read his sermons or other writings; or maybe some of his early hymns had circulated as far as London. Whatever the means, it is striking that a preacher in a small country village in the north of England should have become known, by his early 30s, to Baptists in some of the more important congregations in the capital. But known he certainly must have been, for in 1772 he received a call from the Carter’s Lane congregation of Dr John Gill. Gill was probably the leading minister and theologian of the denomination. In fact, one biographer states that by 1740 Gill was fast becoming ‘the leading theological spokesman for the Particular Baptists in both Great Britain and America.’ Certainly his books were read by influential ministers in New England; including the famous preacher and theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Gill had been serving his congregation with his solid preaching for 52 years when he died.1 Clearly, they were a well-instructed church. You can imagine the honour, then, for an obscure man from the far-off north of England to receive a call from such a church. It would have been the equivalent of a minister in a small town in New Zealand today receiving a call from a well-known church with an internationally-known minister in, say, one of the larger American cities.
Although reluctant to leave his people, the young Fawcett accepted the call. His congregation heard the news with consternation and sorrow – they were really distressed. They made many urgent appeals to their minister, but though touched, he still believed he should go. On the last day of his ministry among them Fawcett met with his people for a final service of worship. His possessions had already been packed on wagons, probably with the help of some of them. It would be a long, slow journey to London. The wagons stood waiting while he preached his farewell sermon. When the service was over, Fawcett was preparing to send the wagons on. Then all of a sudden, finally overcome by the pleadings of his congregation, he decided not to leave them. Straight away he told them this, and overjoyed by the news, the people rushed to the wagons and quickly began unpacking them and carrying the furniture back into the house! So John Fawcett stayed on with his poor but devoted people. He had given up much in worldly terms; for his stipend at Hebden Bridge never exceeded 25 pounds a year, and he would have been sure of much more at Carter’s Lane in London. But, says one writer, ‘he was wondrously rich with his many friends.’ To commemorate this moving turn of events Fawcett wrote the words of Blest be the tie that binds, a fitting tribute to the love between him and his people – love of ‘kindred minds’ that kept him serving among them.
A Daughter Church
Five years later the church was able to establish a second congregation, and Fawcett moved there. He remained there for forty years (the rest of his ministry), and his labours were certainly blessed. In 1793 he was invited to become President of the Baptist Academy in Bristol; but as with the earlier call to London, he declined and remained with his church. In addition to preaching he wrote a number of books on practical religion – we would call that living the Christian life. His best-known and largest work was A Devotional Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, completed towards the end of his life in 1811. His aim in writing this commentary was ‘to bring out clearly and powerfully from every chapter of Scripture such views as were best adapted to promote a devotional spirit.’ Following its publication, an American college awarded him the degrees of M.A. and D.D. Like many faithful ministers he was concerned about the growth of Deism and Unitarianism in his day, and he wrote a poem entitled The Christian’s Humble Plea, which was an answer to Joseph Priestley’s attack on the divinity of Christ. In 1782 a collection of his hymns (in all he wrote over 160) was published with the title Hymns Adapted to the Circumstances of Public Worship and Private Devotion. But despite all his many gifts, and the way in which his labours had been blessed, Fawcett remained a humble man. In the preface to this last work he wrote:
I blush to think of these plain verses falling into the hands of persons of an elevated genius, and refined taste. To such, I know, they will appear flat, dull and unentertaining ... If it may be conducive, under divine blessing to warm the heart or assist the devotion of any humble Christian in the closet, the family or the house of God, I shall therein sincerely rejoice, whatever censure I many incur from the polite world.2
Think of this humble man next time you sing his hymn; and be reminded of the great blessing it is to enjoy the loving fellowship of the believers among whom God has placed you.