From the publisher | June 23, 2023

Great is thy faithfulness

Hymnal open to "Great is thy faithfulness"
Photo by Wendy McFadden

The theme for the centenary of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) is “The Faithfulness of God,” a phrase inspired by Deuteronomy 7:9: “Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations.”

The theme brings to my mind the well-known hymn “Great is thy faithfulness,” a hymn based on Lamentations 3:19-24, with a line also from James 1:17. Many stories about the background of the hymn say its creators describe the song’s genesis as nothing special: Thomas Chisholm wrote a number of hymn texts and sent them to William Runyan, who composed a tune.

That’s it? For a hymn with such power and longevity?

Fortunately, Kevin Mungons, a writer at Moody Bible Institute—where this hymn is embedded in its history and its soul—spent several years researching the fuller story, which was published in an article in 2019.

“The song itself was born in sadness, and came to popularity during a succession of difficult moments,” Mungons wrote. Both lyricist Chisholm and songwriter Runyan had suffered adversity.

Runyan had to step away from being a Methodist minister and traveling evangelist because he lost his voice and then began to lose his hearing. He turned to editing, working for a denominational magazine and then starting a hymnal project.

Chisholm first was a news editor and then pastor of a Methodist church, but poor health also caused him to leave the pastorate. He ended up selling life insurance, though he wrote poetry on the side. Eventually he grew blind.

While Chisholm didn’t know Runyan, the two began a life-long correspondence after their collaboration on what they called the Faithfulness Song.

“Later in life, they made quite a pair—” wrote Mungons, “a writer who could not see, a composer who could not hear, two close friends who never saw each other.” At Moody, the song was sung at times of great difficulty and tragedy—during the Depression, when Moody alumni were killed by Communist soldiers in China, when five missionaries from nearby Wheaton College were killed in Ecuador—but also during moments of celebration.

What year was this hymn published? In 1923. The Faithfulness Song is 100 years old, just like EYN.

Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.