Henry van Dyke (1852-1933), the author of the words to this hymn, was a clergyman and one of the most distinguished literary men of his generation. Besides his pastoral work and his gaining a reputation as a powerful preacher, he taught English literature at Princeton University, where he met many well-known authors from both sides of the Atlantic. He became moderator of the Presbyterian Church in 1902. He also became a close personal friend of American President Woodrow Wilson, who appointed him minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg in 1913. In 1907, however, he was on a preaching mission to Williams College in Massachusetts, staying in the home of its president, Mr. Garfield. At breakfast one morning, van Dyke placed a manuscript on the table and said to his host, "Here is a hymn for you. Your mountains were my inspiration. It must be sung to the music of Beethoven's 'Hymn to Joy.'" He had been moved by the power and beauty revealed in God's "second book," nature, and he wanted others to capture a portion of his spiritual experience in these things.
As noted, the music for this hymn comes from Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827). It is the theme from the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, written in 1824, and adapted by Edward Hodges in 1846. At the time Beethoven wrote it, as with many other of his greatest compositions, he was totally deaf. When he conducted its premier performance, at the close one of the soloists had to turn him around so that he could see the wild applause and hat-waving of the enthusiastic audience. Though Beethoven did not write the music as a hymn, it has served that purpose well in giving glory to God.
Most of the hymns of the blind poet Frances ("Fannie") Jane Crosby (1820-1915) are simple and earnest, many being subjective, and most would be considered as gospel songs. The strong words of this hymn are a notable exception. They make for an inspiring congregational hymn of praise. The stirring, challenging music for it was written by Hart Pease Danks (1834-1903), a carpenter who was an accomplished musician and composer.
The first appearance of this hymn was in the Seventh-day Adventist hymnal Hymns and Tunes (1886), where it bore the notice "Copyrighted 1886 by The J. E. White Pub. Co." J. E. White was James Edson White, the third son of James and Ellen G. White. We do not know how Edson White obtained this song, for most of Fannie Crosby's prolific output was controlled by the publisher Bigelow and Main in Chicago. This hymn has been published in only two non-Adventist hymnals, each more than 100 years ago. So for the most part this hymn, which some feel is one of Crosby's best, has been an almost exclusive possession of Seventh-day Adventists. It has appeared in seven of the church's hymnbooks.
Both the author and composer of this hymn were Seventh-day Adventists. The words come from Lillian Dale Avery-Stuttle (1855-1933), who was a student at Battle Creek College in the late 1870s and became an editorial worker. A woman of deep devotion, faith, and courage, she wrote many beautiful poems and several books. One of her poems appeared on the cover of the Review and Herald March 16, 1933, one day before her death. She expected to be one of the glorious company who would be alive and faithful at the second coming of Jesus, and who, like Enoch, would be "translated so that he did not see death" (Hebrews 11:5). Our hymn today, based on Genesis 5:24, "And Enoch walked with God," was her own favorite.
The tune for this hymn was composed by Edwin Barnes (1864-1930) and copyrighted by the J. E. White Publishing Company for inclusion in Hymns and Tunes, 1886. It was named "Morton" to commemorate Eliza H. Morton, a teacher at Battle Creek College, where Barnes attended in 1881. He was also a teacher of music there.
Adapted from Wayne Hooper and Edward E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1988).
SDAH = Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal
CH = Church Hymnal