Great is Thy faithfulness
Origins. The text of this hymn is by Thomas O. Chisholm (1866–1960). In a letter to hymnologist William Reynolds, 9 June 1955, Chisholm indicated that the hymn did not have any special circumstances behind it, but he did offer these details:
I sent it, with a number of lyrics to Rev. W.M. Runyan and he used several, among them this one. This was in 1923, and I was living in Vineland, New Jersey. It went rather slowly for several years, but was taken up by Dr. Houghton, then president of Moody Bible Institute, and began its wider usefulness there. He once wrote me that, while it was not the official theme song for the Institute, it was by long odds the most popular.
The composer, William M. Runyan (1870–1957), also corresponded with William Reynolds, and in a letter dated 3 August 1954, he said:
This particular poem held such an appeal that I prayed most earnestly that my tune might carry over its message in a worthy way, and the subsequent history of its use indicates that God answered prayer. It was written in Baldwin, Kansas, in 1923, and was first published in my private song pamphlets.
The hymn’s first appearance in a hymnal or songbook was in Runyan’s Songs of Salvation and Service (Chicago: Runyan Music Publishing, 1923 | Fig. 1). The hymn also appeared in Chisholm’s career-spanning collection, Great Is Thy Faithfulness (Vineland, NJ: Glendale Press, 1956). The tune is usually dubbed FAITHFULNESS, a name given to it for the 1956 Baptist Hymnal, at the suggestion of William Runyan.
Analysis. The chorus of the hymn, the main thrust of its message, is based on Lamentations 3:22-23 (KJV):
It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.
The first stanza includes allusions to James 1:17 (“shadow of turning”) and parts of Revelation 1:4, 1:8, and 4:8 (“was and is and is to come”), or Hebrews 13:8 (“Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever”). In the second stanza, the image of nature joining in witness comes from passages like Psalm 19:1 and Psalm 98:7-8. In the third stanza, the concepts are more generalized.
The music shows noticeable skill in the craft of composition. The first two measures alone include an augmented chord and a major seventh chord, with smooth voice leading that sounds natural and timeless. The melody and harmony rise and fall with good shape and direction. Both the text and tune have aged well, rarely altered in hymnals. Some newer settings adapt the music to be fitting for modern bands.
Legacy. Singer George Beverly Shea (1909–2013), a longtime colleague of evangelist Billy Graham, was among those who learned “Great is Thy faithfulness” through its popularity at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Shea and the rest of Billy Graham’s music team introduced the hymn to Christians in Great Britain during their services there in 1954. Regarding this hymn, Shea wrote:
Through his dealings with mortal men, we have learned that God is faithful. He has promised in His Word to forgive our sins and to give us peace of mind and heart; when we accept Christ His Son as our Lord and Saviour, He fulfills His pledge. Morning by morning, day after day, we feel His presence in our hearts. Surely we can look forward with hope to His presence, even at the end of life’s journey.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
9 October 2018
William J. Reynolds, Hymns of Our Faith: A Handbook for the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1964), p. 56.
William J. Reynolds, Hymns of Our Faith: A Handbook for the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1964), pp. 56-57.
George Beverly Shea, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” ed. Cliff Barrows, Crusade Hymn Stories (Chicago: Hope Publishing, 1967), p. 32.
“Great is thy faithfulness” at Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson & Carlton Young, “Great is thy faithfulness,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: Great is thy faithfulness,” UMC Discipleship Ministries: