He Will Hold Me Fast

When I fear my faith will fail


Origins. This hymn of devotion has its roots in three continents. The story begins with American evangelist R.A. Torrey (1856–1928) and his music director Charles Alexander (1867–1920), who were touring Australia in 1902 when they met a young pianist, Robert Harkness (1880–1961).

Alexander & Harkness in New Zealand, 1902, in Twice Around the World with Alexander (1907).

Dr. Torrey and Mr. Alexander came to my home town of Bendigo in June. Prior to their coming a committee of the Mission came to me, and asked if I would not help in the meetings by playing the piano a part of the time. I was not interested in evangelistic meetings; indeed, I was rather opposed to them, but the thought struck me, that perhaps my good father and mother would be pleased if I took part in these meetings, and I consented. I hadn't been in the first meeting ten minutes before I found it was going to be decidedly warm, much warmer than I had expected.

Mr. Alexander announced Hymn No. 7, and I was soon playing a two-line hymn, with an old Southern melody. I was not deeply interested, and played it in an offhand way. In playing through the “Glory Song,” when I came to the chorus, I closed the book; I had memorized it quickly and improvised an accompaniment to the chorus to try to displease Mr. Alexander; but, instead of displeasing him, he turned around and looked at me and said, “Keep it up. Keep it up. That is what we want.” So I kept on. The next time we had the chorus I played a full octave accompaniment, thinking he would surely be upset, but he was not there to be upset. At the close of the meeting Dr. Torrey asked me if I was a Christian. I straightened up and said, “No, I am here to play the piano.” Dr. Torrey left me and went away, to pray for me—I think.[1]

After that experience, Alexander challenged Harkness to accept Christ. Harkness, moved by Alexander’s genuine concern for his spiritual welfare, accepted. In addition, Alexander was so impressed by Harkness’ abilities that he employed the young man in his traveling music team, forming a partnership that lasted several years.

After their work in Australia, the team traveled to Tasmania, New Zealand, and India before shifting their efforts to the British Isles. In 1905, while in London, toward the end of their campaign, the team came into contact with songstress Ada Habershon (1861–1918), yielding their first collaborative composition:

A few days before the movement in the Strand ended, a new gospel song was added to Mr. Alexander’s collection of revival hymns, which achieved instant popularity. It was entitled, “Oh, what a change!” and was written by a lady already widely known for her sacred verse, Miss Ada R. Habershon. She was a worker in the campaign, and heard Dr. Torrey speak one afternoon upon “The Second Coming of Christ.” She was much impressed by the Doctor’s words, and on returning home wrote the beautiful lines of the hymn. … Soon afterwards, Miss Habershon handed the lines to Mr. Harkness with the request that he would set them to music. During Dr. Torrey’s sermon one night, as the pianist scanned the lines, he had an inspiration, and, pulling from his pocket a piece of paper jotted down the melody. The hymn was quickly printed as originally written—without any alteration whatever—and delighted everyone who was privileged to hear it. During the last days of the campaign on the Strand it was sung on an average at least once in each meeting.[2]

Mission site at The Strand, London, England, 1905, in Twice Around the World with Alexander (1907).

In early 1906, the team was in Toronto, Canada. By one account, Harkness had met a young convert there, who “expressed the fear that he would not be able to hold out,”[3] so he wrote to Habershon in England to request more texts to address this sentiment. Harkness later described how Habershon’s reply came after the team had moved their work to Philadelphia:

It was 1906, during the Mission in Philadelphia. I remember Dr. Torrey was preaching to about 4000 people in the Armory. During a sermon I took out some slips of paper with some words which Miss Habershon had sent over in response to a request for some verses about keeping the power of Christ. I read over the lines of “He will hold me fast”; the melody came to me, and I worked it out there and then, writing the music for the verses and the chorus.[4]

The following summer, 1907, the song was introduced at the Moody Bible Conference in Northfield, Massachusetts. One reporter described how this song “captivated everybody … and was sung and whistled all over the grounds.”[5]

In the spring of 1908, Charles Alexander returned to Philadelphia with evangelist J. Wilbur Chapman (1859–1918) and later relayed this testimony in relation to the impact of the song:

During our mission in Philadelphia last spring, Dr. Charles W. Gordon called me across the waiting room of the hotel where we were staying and introduced me to a fine looking young man, and told me this story. … His face was shining as he told us how he had been in our meeting a few days before and had been converted. When I questioned him I found that he had been in darkness, and felt he was too weak to live a Christian life. He was in the meeting when I was leading the people in the song “He will hold me fast,” and he said that was the very message he needed. The thought that Christ could hold him fast, and that he need not depend upon his own will power, or his own strength, was the means of his decision for Christ.[6]

Only a few weeks after the Philadelphia crusade, Chapman and Alexander (and probably Harkness) were leading a crusade in Kansas City. A reporter described how “He will hold me fast” was a highlight of the experience:

The climax of the service of song came when Mr. Alexander united choir and audience—6,000 strong—in singing Mr. Harkness’ new hymn, “He will hold me fast.” The people were electrified by the vast volume of melody, such as was probably never before heard in the building, and by the thought of Christ holding us fast amid all of life’s temptations and trials.[7]

Fig. 1. Northfield Hymnal with Alexander’s Supplement (Chicago: Biglow & Main, 1907).

“He will hold me fast” first circulated on leaflets and/or in small booklets prepared for revival meetings, including a broadsheet published in Toronto in 1907 (WorldCat). Its first appearance in a hymnal or songbook was in the Northfield Hymnal with Alexander’s Supplement (Chicago: Biglow & Main, 1907 | Fig. 1). It also appeared in George T.B. Davis’ Twice Around the World with Alexander, Prince of Gospel Singers (NY: Christian Herald, 1907). The original version has four stanzas and a refrain. Musically, it has the unusual feature of placing the melody in the bass line. In an interview in 1909, Harkness described his rationale for doing this:

I adopted the plan of putting the melody in the left hand and writing a little accompaniment for the right, having got the idea from hearing a cello in an orchestra. This had been used in secular song, but was quite a new thing in gospel songs—and I had been most desirous of getting away from the old accompaniment of three or four chords. Some of the leading gospel writers said that these would never be sung, because they were opposed to the rules of gospel hymns, but the public apparently cared nothing for the rules, as they quickly became very popular, and since then numbers of writers have adopted the principle.[8]

Retuned. In spite of the initial success of the song, it fell out of use after the mid twentieth century. In recent years, it has enjoyed a resurgence through a new tune setting by Matt Merker of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (Washington, D.C.). According to Merker, a member of his congregation had given him a copy of the original gospel song, but he initially set it aside.

I forgot about the song for a while, but later pulled it out again when I was walking through a difficult personal season of doubt and uncertainty. I was wrestling with the hard questions of the faith and struggling to place my trust in the enduring power of God’s preserving grace. John Piper’s sermon from T4G 2012 on Jude vv. 20-25 was a lifeline for me, and Jude 24 became an anchor for my soul in that trying time: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy…” … I pulled out “He Will Hold Me Fast” again and the words ministered to me deeply. I wanted to see the resurrection and return of Christ featured in the lyrics, since our hope is guaranteed by the reality that Christ has risen and is coming again. I first shared the song with my wife and then with our pastor, and he suggested we should try singing it as a congregation. We introduced the song to CHBC early in 2013 and the church quickly owned the song and began singing it with joy (and really loud voices!).[9]

Merker’s version combines Habershon’s original four stanzas into two, with some minor alterations, and it adds an additional stanza featuring the resurrection and return of Christ. It was first published electronically through Capitol Hill’s website (Fig. 2) and has since been covered by other artists, including Keith & Kristyn Getty.

 

Fig. 2. “He will hold me fast,” Matt Merker, Capitol Hill Baptist Church (Washington, D.C., 2013), excerpt. ©2013 Matt Merker Music.

 

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
3 January 2018


Footnotes:

  1. George T.B. Davis, Twice Around the World with Alexander, Prince of Gospel Singers (NY: Christian Herald, 1907), pp. 47-48.

  2. George T.B. Davis, Torrey and Alexander: The Story of a World-Wide Revival (London: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1905), pp. 219-220: Google Books

  3. Cyber Hymnal, “He will hold me fast,” http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/h/w/i/hwilhold.htm

  4. “The spiritual awakening in Australasia,” The Westminster, vol. 34, no. 38 (18 Sept. 1909), p. 11.

  5. “He will hold me fast,” The Presbyterian Banner, vol. 94, no. 43 (2 April 1908), p. 1405.

  6. Charles M. Alexander, “Gospel song in the service of Christ,” Record of Christian Work, vol. 27, no. 11 (November 1908), p. 859.

  7. George T.B. Davis, “A great meeting at Kansas City,” The Presbyterian Banner, vol. 95, no. 1 (11 June 1908), p. 23.

  8. “The spiritual awakening in Australasia,” The Westminster, vol. 34, no. 38 (18 Sept. 1909), p. 11.

  9. “He will hold me fast,” Getty Music, https://www.gettymusic.com/he-will-hold-me-fast/

Additional Resources:

Wax cylinder, performed by Harry Anthony and James F. Harrison (1909), University of California Santa Barbara, Cylinder Audio Archive:
http://www.library.ucsb.edu/OBJID/Cylinder3594

C. Edward Spann & Michael W. Williams Sr., Presidential Praise: Our Presidents and Their Hymns (Macon, GA: Mercer, 2008), pp. 258-260.

Janice Pibworth, “He will hold me fast,” Evangelicals Now (December 2018):
http://www.e-n.org.uk/2018/12/features/he-will-hold-me-fast/

Matt Merker Music:
https://www.mattmerkermusic.com/

Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Music Resources:
https://www.capitolhillbaptist.org/resources/music/

“When I fear my faith will fail,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/when_i_fear_my_faith_will_fail