Author: Francis H. Rowley (1886)
Tune: [I will sing the wondrous story] (Bilhorn)
In Psalm 66, the psalmist says, “Come and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell what he has done for my soul” (Psalm 66:16 ESV). In this hymn, we declare the goodness of God in calling us to Himself and in continuing to guide us until the end of our lives.
This hymn was written by Francis H. Rowley in 1886 during a series of revival services at First Baptist Church in North Adams, Massachusetts, where Rowley was pastoring at the time. He wrote it at the suggestion of Peter Bilhorn, who was the music leader for the revival meeting. The text originally began “Can't you sing …” but Ira D. Sankey changed it when he published it, with other alterations, in Gospel Hymns No. 5 in 1887.
The original text had five four-line stanzas and a four-line refrain of the same meter. Most modern hymnals use all five stanzas, though some omit the fifth (beginning “He will keep me”). When this text is sung to HYFRYDOL, the five stanzas and the refrain are combined into three eight-line stanzas.
This gospel hymn is heavy on narrative, rather than doctrine, though it alludes to several scripture passages. For example, the first stanza refers to Philippians 2:6-8, and the second to the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15:4-7. The third and fourth remind one of the numerous Psalms where the psalmist complains to God of his troubles and reminds himself of God's constant presence. The fifth stanza and the refrain refer to passages in Revelation.
Peter Bilhorn wrote WONDROUS STORY in 1886 for this text, and it is still the most popular tune paired with it in hymnals. It is a sprightly tune, written when Bilhorn was only twenty-one years old. George Stebbins harmonized it, as Bilhorn did not have enough musical training to do so successfully. Piano or organ accompaniment works well. Sing the stanzas in unison, but sing in harmony on the refrain, where the lower parts echo the text and add some interest to the long notes.
Another tune that has a long history with this text is the well-known Welsh tune HYFRYDOL, which was written in 1830 by Rowland H. Prichard, when he was twenty years old. This tune is one of the most popular of all hymn tunes, and occurs in most, if not all, modern hymnals, usually with multiple texts. Some hymnals use it for six different texts! Features of the tune that lend to its popularity include its dependence on stepwise motion and its narrow vocal range (with one exception in the last phrase, the whole tune is within a fifth). The rhythmic patterns are simple, and the tune works well in a variety of moods and tempos. HYFRYDOL was first associated with this text in the Gipsy Smith Special Supplement to Hallowed Hymns, New and Old, 1919, as the second tune (WONDROUS STORY is the first).