Lewis Hartsough’s hymn, I Hear Thy Welcome Voice, gets something like 19,000 hits from a YouTube search, and links to five of them appear below. But you won’t find the hymn in any United Methodist hymnal.
That’s a measure of the distance between Dakota Territory and the 21st century. And yet, the hymn and the fact of its global dispersion still have a message for the Christian season of Lent today.
Lewis Hartsough wrote both the words and the music to I Hear Thy Welcome Voice(also known as I Am Coming, Lord) a few years before he and his wife, Isabella Cornish Hartsough, moved to Dakota Territory. Lewis became a presiding elder in southern Dakota, working alongside other presiding elders like Lewis Bradford. The Dakota Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church continued to sing Hartsough’s hymn throughout his remaining life.
Isabella led revivals, helped to start congregations, and served as both a local preacher and a reserve lay delegate to General Conference before church law fully allowed these things for women.
I tell the story of their lives as founders of Dakota Territory Methodism in We Are Yet Alive: United Methodists in the History of North Dakota and South Dakota.
After Lewis Hartsough died at the end of the First World War, his hymn took on a life of its own.
Here are five recent versions of the hymn in different languages and musical styles. They show that it took a long and complicated historical journey after it departed Iowa where Hartsough wrote it and Dakota Territory where his conference sang it. Looking back from the 21st century, this journey feels almost as unimaginable as it is undeniable.
All five of these versions reproduced, translated, or performed music for the following words:
I Am Coming, Lord by Lewis Hartsough
That calls me, Lord, to thee;
For cleansing in thy precious blood,
That flow’d on Calvary.
I am coming, Lord!
Coming now to thee!
Wash me, cleanse me, in the blood
That flow’d on Calvary.
Thou dost my strength assure;
Thou dost my vileness fully cleanse,
Till spotless all, and pure.
To perfect faith and love,
To perfect hope, and peace, and trust,
For earth and heaven above.
4. ‘Tis Jesus who confirms,
The blessed work within,
By adding grace, to welcome grace,
Where reigned the power of sin.
To loyal hearts and free,
That every promise is fulfilled,
If faith but brings the plea.
All hail! redeeming grace!
All hail! the gift of Christ, our Lord,
Our strength and righteousness.
Hartsough’s hymn participated in the holiness movement that swept across Methodism and the Evangelical Association during the second half of the 19th century. The hymn spoke of God’s power to transform willing individuals into people who would love as Jesus loves (“sanctification”).
It also spoke of Jesus’ sacrifice of his life on the cross as the “atonement” for human sinfulness and failure to love—the atonement that made sanctification possible. Published versions of the hymn sometimes cited passages from the gospel of John or the letters of John as its Biblical inspiration.
What is it about the cross that puts us “at one” with God in spite of our selfishness? This is a crucial question that the season of Lent has always raised. So, how did Hartsough answer it?
He stressed each individual’s personal relationship to Jesus. Personal relationship to Jesus formed the necessary foundation of the Christian life.
But did this tell the whole story?
The hymn offered no vision of the Church. It said nothing about solidarity with other Christians or other human beings or other living beings. Where is any reference to representation of marginalized groups in the leadership of the Church? Where is any expression of conscience about the impoverishment of farmers and Native Americans that was taking place before Hartsough’s eyes when he wrote?
It looks like he bought into 19th-century American individualism without a second thought about whether his hymn delivered the whole Christian faith.
For the following three reasons, however, the story of the holiness movement in Dakota Territory proved to be more complicated.
First, Hartsough advocated the licensing of women preachers at the General Conference of 1880—an early date in the advocacy of this critical first step toward the ordination of women.
Second, the five 21st-century versions of Hartsough’s hymn demonstrate that, in practice, people from around the world have embraced this hymn from Dakota Territory and made it their own. This development made it in some sense a hymn of the Church.
Finally, the hymn itself made uncited references to the gospel and letters of John. In a great and enduring teaching for the season of Lent, the gospel and letters of John tell us that being at one with God thru Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross means being at one with each other.
*Stanza 4 appeared in some but not all of the 19th-century hymnals and songbooks that published Hartsough’s hymn—maybe because it expressed ideas that stanzas 3 and 4 articulated.
Image from Winnowed Hymns: A Collection of Sacred Songs, Especially Adapted for Revivals, Prayer and Camp Meetings, ed. C. C. McCabe and D. T. Macfarlan, New York and Chicago: Biglow & Main, Nelson & Phillips, National Publishing Association for the Promotion of Holiness, 1873, Number 86 (“by permission of Philip Phillips”), https://archive.org/details/winnowedhymnscol00mcca.