March 22

Renewed Hope: Easter Songs and Their Stories

Renewed Hope: Easter Songs and Their Stories

By Deborah Johnson

March 22, 2024

Amazing Grace, Deborah Johnson, Easter, Easter hymns, Easter Songs, Great is Thy Faithfulness, In the Garden, podcast, renewed hope, resilience, Were You There

Exploring the background of Easter provides valuable context for understanding the significance of its associated Easter Songs. According to Wikipedia, the holiday has various names, many stemming from the Greek and Latin term "Pascha," which translates to "Passover" in Hebrew. In modern English, these words originated from Old English, which had ties to an Anglo-Saxon goddess. The root of the Old English term connotes "to shine," likely derived from meanings related to dawn, east, and sunrise.

Growing up, my family observed Easter by attending church, where we celebrated the central message of the gospel: the resurrection. During high school, I began playing the piano for church services, eventually participating in the Easter sunrise service held outdoors. Despite the early hour, this service held a special place in my heart, as I enjoyed focusing on the day's message while singing as the sun slowly ascended. In this podcast, I'll delve into the history of some of the most cherished hymns and songs associated with Easter, many of which hold significant roles in Easter celebrations.

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Women at Halftime by Deborah Johnson Renewed Hope-Easter Songs and their Stories with Deborah Johnson 3-26-2024
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Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?

One of the most memorable moments in my life was singing the song “Were You There?” a cappella in front of the Garden Tomb, years ago. Given the current global circumstances, I'm uncertain if I'll ever have the opportunity to experience such a profound moment in that part of the world again. However I carried the essence of that a cappella rendition with me drawing inspiration from it while arranging “Were You There?” for my Graduate Recital. During this recital, I delved into the historical roots of spirituals and their influence on contemporary music, presenting the arrangement with a small chorus.

Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? is an African-American spiritual, likely originating in the 19th century before 1865. Originally consisting of seven verses, it encapsulates the narrative of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. For generations, African American slaves passed down this song, finding solace in its depiction of Jesus' suffering, mirroring their own experiences. Over time, they embraced Jesus as their Savior, finding peace, grace, forgiveness, and hope for the future, themes vividly portrayed in the song. Despite its widespread use and significance, the song lacks a defined composer and was first printed in 1899.

“Were You There?” repeats the same line over and over in each verse, amplifying its emotional impact. This characteristic, common in many spirituals, effectively communicates the song's message. Many spirituals focused on one theme in the lyric to communicate their message with emotion. And we can see that style in many contemporary songs today.

In the Garden

The beginning of this song was composed by Austin Miles (1912) while he was waiting for film to develop in a cold, dreary and leaky basement in New Jersey that didn’t even have a window, let alone the view of a garden. Austin Miles was a pharmacist who served as editor of hymnals and songbooks at Hall-Mack publishers for 37 years, as well as a popular music director. His hobby was photography.

The song In the Garden was popularized during the Billy Sunday evangelistic campaigns. Miles originally intended “In the Garden" as an Easter song, as the speaker of the song is Mary Magdalene. Some who have recorded the song are Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Perry Como and Elvis Presley. It has also appeared in many films.

Great is Thy Faithfulness

Thomas Chisholm was born in Kentucky in 1866. He wrote over 1,200 hymns and did not write Great is Thy Faithfulness because he witnessed some great and miraculous event, but because through his life's experience he witnessed the greatness of God.

Sheet Music Sampler-Deborah Johnson

At the age of 75 he wrote the following: “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that he has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.” This quote from Chisholm should give every listener and reader renewed hope!

Your Truth it Stands

At the time I wrote this contemporary hymn Your Truth it Stands, unemployment was at an all-time high with people working harder than ever, just to stay in the same place. At least 50% of college graduates were unemployed or underemployed and retirees were faced with an uncertain future, rising costs and questions of where to put their money.

Many were upside down on their mortgages with homes that had dropped half their value or more; our country was facing a fiscal cliff of debt that surpassed any other time in history; and we had leaders in office that controlled the press and made up their own truths. Some of those events may sound familiar today as the trajectory of uncertainty, debt and inflation has increased. Even though the outcome doesn’t always look good, there is one truth that will always be constant. This song was written about that one truth I knew I could always count on in my life: The absoluteness of a Mighty God.

Easter Sheet Music-Deborah Johnson

You are Faithful, You are Lord

I wrote this contemporary hymn reflecting on the faithfulness of God in my life through some roadblocks I had faced that seemed insurmountable at the time. I pictured the wonder of “Old Faithful,” which I visited several times on family camping trips while growing up. Old Faithful is a cone geyser, where water erupts in a narrow jet and is located in Yellowstone National Park in the state of Wyoming in the United States.

It is called “Old Faithful” because it’s one of the most predictable geographical features on earth, erupting almost every 91 minutes. In the song “You are Faithful,” the lyric begins describing that what was seen was nothing at all with darkness in space. This is when God reached out through the night and spoke the world into place. Every verse ends with For You are Faithful, You are Lord, similar to a traditional spiritual, in communicating the emotion of the song.

Amazing Grace-It is Well with my Soul

I combined an arrangement of both of these songs Amazing Grace-It is Well With My Soul because of the message of renewed hope in their lyrics. “Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognized hymns in the world. It was fairly obscure until the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century, with revivals especially strong in the northeast and midwest. The lyrics that John Newton wrote in the late 1790’s are set to the folk tune “New Britain” and it was first published with music and lyrics in 1835. Today, the song is so popular that it is performed about ten million times annually in a variety of settings.

Horatio G. Spafford was an attorney in Chicago during the year 1874. He and his family faced multiple tragedies. First, he and his wife lost their only son, then in 1971 most of their personal property was burned in the great Chicago fire. But their greatest testing came in 1874. Mrs. Spafford and their four daughters boarded the French ship “Ville du Havre” on their way to England. Just off the coast of Ireland the ship sank with 226 persons losing their lives. Horatio finally received the cable sent by his wife. It read “saved alone.” As he traveled to England to comfort his wife, he focused on the verse in Romans, “All things work together for good to them that love the lord.” He then penned the words to the beloved hymn “It is Well with My Soul.”

Renewed Hope with Songs and Message of Easter

The timeless significance of hope, particularly its renewal, remains undiminished. It is an essential element for navigating and flourishing in life. Hope serves as a driving force, inspiring people to persist through obstacles, maintain optimism for the future, and actively pursue avenues for personal growth and advancement. It acts as a guiding light during periods of darkness, fostering resilience, resolve, and a sense of purpose.

In the book The Summit, the protagonist Mallery, whose name ironically means misfortune or “ill-fated,” receives a band of hope that becomes a necessary part of her journey. When she loses this symbol of hope, feelings of discouragement and aimlessness overtake her. However, through perseverance, Mallery not only conquers her Hero Mountain successfully but also undergoes a transformative process, earning the new name Andriette, which means strength and courage. As we contemplate the theme of hope during this season, it is worthwhile to reflect on the lyrics of Easter Songs, particularly those that illuminate pathways to hope and resilience as we face life's challenges.

Additional Resources: 

Easter Songs including all the songs mentioned in this article. Videos, sheet music, downloadable MP3 accompaniment tracks

Walking with the Hymns including all the stories of hymns mentioned in this article as well as devotional reflections

The Summit: Journey to Hero Mountain book by Deborah Johnson

Exploring the background of Easter provides valuable context for understanding the significance of Easter songs and hymns.

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Thought Leader, Keynote Speaker, Author

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Deborah Johnson

About the author

DEBORAH JOHNSON, M.A., creator of Hero Mountain® and former president of Los Angeles National Speakers Association, is an international award-winning music artist, author, speaker and National Media Commentator. She also hosts the popular podcast "Women at Halftime." Deborah provides tools to create your ideal lifestyle and work at mid-career or during the halftime of life, getting unstuck. You can live your second half fulfilled, focused and free! Up for multiple GRAMMY Awards and spending over 20 years in the entertainment industry, she's an expert on how to constantly reinvent yourself in a gig-economy. She is also the recipient of the Women's Economic Forum Exceptional Women of Excellence Award. Deborah is the author of multiple books, over twenty albums and musicals and speaks and performs in both live and virtual events.

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