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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Nineteenth-century hymn celebrates the resurrection C. Michael Hawn, Apr 25, 2012
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Up from the Grave He Arose” Robert Lowry UM Hymnal, No. 322
Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior, waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!
Up from the grave he arose with a mighty triumph o’er his foes; he arose a victor from the dark domain, and he lives forever with his saints to reign. He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!
Robert Lowry (1826-1899), the Philadelphia-born author and composer of this hymn, was a popular Baptist preacher and educator who served churches in Pennsylvania, New York City and Plainfield, N.J.
Lowry studied theology at the University of Lewisburg (now Bucknell University), graduating in 1854 and teaching literature there from 1869-1875. He became known for his gospel songs while ministering in Brooklyn, collaborating often with William H. Doane in producing gospel song collections.
Among his most famous gospel compositions are “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” (UM Hymnal, No. 362) and “Shall We Gather at the River” (No. 723). He also composed tunes for other’s texts, such as MARCHING TO ZION, a camp meeting version of Isaac Watts’ text, “Come, We that Love the Lord,” and NEED, a tune for Annie Hawks’ hymn, “I Need Thee Every Hour.”
Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck notes that “Lowry was recognized as a most capable minister of the gospel, possessing keen insight and administrative ability. He became known as a thorough Bible scholar and a brilliant and captivating orator; few preachers of his day had greater ability to paint word pictures and to inspire a congregation. Music and a knowledge of hymnology were his favorite studies, but always as an avocation.”
When William Bradbury, another well known gospel song writer, died, Lowry was selected by the Biglow Publishing Company in 1868 to be its music editor. In this capacity he published more than 20 Sunday school songbooks. Pure Gold, considered to be his most successful publication, sold more than 1,000,000 copies.
When asked about writing a hymn, he said, “It must be readily apprehended by the Christian consciousness, coming forth from the experience of the writer, and clothed in strong and inspiring words.”
“Low in the Grave He Lay,” called “Christ Arose” in many hymnals, was composed in 1874 while Lowry was the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lewisburg, Pa. It first appeared in the collection Brightest and Best (1875) under the title “He is not here, but risen—Luke 24:5.” When it was included in music evangelist Ira D. Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos (1875), the song became very popular in the Moody-Sankey revivals. From that point it appeared in a number of 19th-century British and American hymnals.
Mr. Osbeck records this account of the composition of the gospel song: Following his reflection on the resurrection as recorded in Luke 24:6-8, “. . . Lowry found himself seated at the little pump organ in the parlor of his home, and, in a very spontaneous fashion, there came forth the music and the words, giving expression to the thoughts that had been uppermost in his mind.”
The centerpiece of the song is the textual and musical contrast between the stanzas and the refrain. The dirge-like stanzas in block chords with a melody that plods in a step-wise fashion give way to a rhythmic refrain that surges up like a trumpet blast. Like many gospel songs, the three stanzas basically say the same thing three different ways. Each stanza ends with “Jesus my Lord!”—reminiscent of the early Christian affirmation “Jesus is Lord.” (Romans 10:9-13)
This was a favorite hymn of my childhood. Not only do I recall singing it on Easter Sunday morning at lakeside sunrise services, I also recall crouching low during the stanzas and jumping up suddenly at the beginning of the refrain.
Within the Western 19th-century gospel sound, the music of this song captures perfectly the spirit of the transition from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.