Count Your Blessings

Sometimes in the Christian faith, the simplest tenets are the most memorable and enduring. The hymn “Count Your Blessings” was first published in a collection called Songs for Young People (1897 | Fig. 1), published for the Methodist Book Concern (the publishing arm of the Methodist Episcopal Church), and edited by E.O. Excell, a prolific hymnal editor and compiler. True to its intent as a song for youth, its message is simple and clear: The best way to fight discouragement is to look for the blessings of life.


Fig. 1. E.O. Excell, Songs for Young People (NY: Methodist Book Concern, 1897).


Some notable allusions in the text include Matthew 16:24 (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” also Luke 9:23), Matthew 5:12 (“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven,” also Luke 6:23), and Hebrews 1:14 (“Are they [angels] not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?”). The song as a whole could be summarized by 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”).

Little is known about the circumstances of the composition of this hymn, other than what is known about the authors. E.O. Excell (1851–1921), the composer, ran a publishing business based out of Chicago, with a specialty for Sunday School materials. In 1897, he was also working in conjunction with revivalist Sam P. Jones (1847–1906) and toured with him across the United States and elsewhere.

Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856–1922), the lyricist, was an ordained minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church and at the time was in the mercantile business with his father in Lumberton, New Jersey, as Johnson Oatman & Son. Oatman had started writing songs in 1892. Biographer J.H. Hall later reported:

But it remained for Prof. E.O. Excell to bring out in 1897 what, in the opinion of most critics, is said to be Mr. Oatman’s masterpiece. “Count Your Blessings,” like “No, Not One,” has gone all over the world. Like a beam of sunlight it has brightened up the dark places of earth. Perhaps no American hymn was ever received with such enthusiasm in England as “Count Your Blessings.” A London daily, in giving an account of a meeting presided over by Gypsy Smith, said, “Mr. Smith announced a hymn. ‘Let us sing “Count Your Blessings.”’ Said he, ‘Down in South London the men sing it, the boys whistle it, and the women rock their babies to sleep to the tune.’”[1]

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
1 November 2018


Footnotes:

  1. J.H. Hall, “Johnson Oatman Jr.” Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers (NY: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1914), p. 358.

Related Resources:

“Count Your Blessings” at Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/when_upon_lifes_billows_you_are_tempest

David Russell Hamrick, “Count Your Blessings,” David’s Hymn Blog (15 August 2012):
http://drhamrick.blogspot.com/2012/08/count-your-blessings.html