In the Garden


Origins. Gospel composer C. Austin Miles (1868–1946) was originally educated and trained as a pharmacist, but after achieving some success as a songwriter, he became a full-time music editor for the Hall-Mack Publishing Company in 1898, and he continued in a similar capacity when Hall-Mack merged with the Rodeheaver Company in 1935. Miles’ most famous song by far is “In the Garden.” He provided this story of the song’s composition to one of his colleagues, George W. Sanville:

One day in March, 1912, I was seated in the dark-room, where I kept my photographic equipment and organ. I drew my Bible toward me; it opened at my favorite chapter, John XX—whether by chance or inspiration let each reader decide. That meeting of Jesus and Mary had lost none of its power to charm. As I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, “Robboni!”

My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches. A woman in white, with head bowed, hand clasping her throat, as if to choke back her sobs, walked slowly into the shadows. It was Mary. As she came to the tomb, upon which she placed her hand, she bent over to look in, and hurried away.

John, in flowing robe, appeared, looking at the tomb; then came Peter, who entered the tomb, followed slowly by John. As they departed, Mary reappeared, leaning her head upon her arm at the tomb, she wept. Turning herself, she saw Jesus standing, so did I. I knew it was He. She knelt before Him, with arms outstretched and looking into His face cried, “Rabboni!”

I awakened in full light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has since appeared. That same evening I wrote the music.[1]

This song was first published in Gospel Message No. 2 (NY: Hall-Mack, 1912 | Fig. 1), which Miles co-edited. Miles wrote the words and the music, containing three stanzas with a chorus/refrain. A version for solo voice was published by Hall-Mack in 1917.

 

Fig. 1. The Gospel Message No. 2 (NY: Hall-Mack, 1912).

 


Analysis. The opening line, “I come to the garden alone” comes from John 20:1, with Mary arriving early at the tomb, and the garden context coming from John 20:15. The references to Jesus speaking with Mary relate to John 20:14-17. Parts of stanza 1 (“the dew is still on the roses”) and all of stanza 2 are an interpolation of what Mary might have seen and felt but are not directly given in the Scripture text. In the third stanza, the mention of Mary wanting to stay “tho’ the night around me be falling,” is a stretch of time, not reflected in the original text. The rest of that stanza is based on Christ’s resistance to being touched or embraced (“Do not cling to me”) and his instruction for Mary to announce his pending ascension to the disciples, as in John 20:17.

Musically, the hymn carries the sense of a tender ballad, with its waltz-like rhythm and the anticipatory fermatas approaching the chorus, not to mention the lingering pause at “tarry there.” In style and substance, it could be compared to a later song, “Someday my prince will come” (1937), a sentiment which has brought both admiration and criticism upon the hymn.


Reception. This hymn has tended to have a polarized reception, either cherished or chastised. As a matter of being cherished, the song was used extensively by Homer Rodeheaver (1880–1955) in his evangelistic campaigns with Billy Sunday (1862–1935). It was also used frequently during the campaigns of Billy Graham (1918–2018). The hymn has been included in nearly 200 hymnals and many other songbooks.

It has been recorded numerous times by prominent vocalists, including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Randy Travis, Ella Fitzgerald, Loretta Lynn, Rosemary Clooney, and others. The oldest recording is probably by the Apollo Quartet of Boston, 1917, for Emerson (USCB Cylinder Audio Archive : website). It was recorded by Homer Rodeheaver and Virginia Asher on Columbia 78-rpm records, 1918 (WorldCat), similar to a recording they made of “The old rugged cross” in 1920. Other undated 78-rpm discs exist.

 
 

In spite of its popularity, the hymn has sometimes been called “sentimental,” “meaningless,” “selfish,” or even “erotic.” A sense of the conflict was given in the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (1993):

This was one of the most requested of hymns to be included in this hymnal; and it is also one of the least liked, often denounced as erotic and egocentric.[2]

Church musician and scholar Donald P. Hustad (1918–2013) was an advocate for the song while also recognizing its potential misuse. As a member of Billy Graham’s evangelistic music team, Hustad wrote about the hymn in Crusade Hymn Stories (1967), recounting a conversation with someone who had very little comprehension of the song’s intended meaning. When he asked what garden was represented in the song, the person scoffed, “What difference does it make, ‘what garden’?” Hustad wrote:

The truth is, it makes quite a lot of difference. If the hymn is just a childhood favorite with pleasant phrases about gardens and birds and roses, it cannot be really meaningful in a vital worship experience today. This kind of attachment for a song is a superficial emotion which is a good example of what we call “sentimentality.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. There was a garden, and the hymn can be meaningful! … The specific reference to a garden becomes much clearer when we learn that C. Austin Miles was writing about the first Easter morning and the garden in which Christ was buried. …

Mary’s experience is relived by every person who confronts the risen Christ and realizes His presence in the routine of daily life. We too can “walk and talk” with Christ and be assured that we belong to Him. This experience is very real to a believer and brings a joy that is beyond any other satisfaction. Indeed, it may sometimes seem that no one else has ever known as much delight as we experience, walking each day with Christ.[3]

In 1983, Hustad wrote a similar piece for The Hymn, explaining how the words of the hymn were an imaginative but appropriate retelling of Mary’s encounter with Christ. He also cautioned readers not to neglect the duty of teaching its meaning:

While the song may not often be sung with understanding, C. Austin Miles’ words are an imaginative, perceptive and accurate rendering of one of the most beautiful narratives in the New Testament. … It is probably true that this hymn is so personal an expression of the composer that it should not be sung in corporate worship without an explanation of its background.[4]

Hustad included the hymn in two hymnals he edited, Hymns for the Living Church (1974) and The Worshiping Church (1990). In the Worship Leaders’ Edition of the latter hymnal, Hustad once more framed the issue:

This hymn rarely has been understood by those who have sung it, even those who list it as their favorite. … The final phrase, often criticized as a “selfish expression,” was actually true: no one else ever knew the joy of Mary or of Jesus in that experience. She was the first to meet the risen Lord. In meeting her, Jesus was reunited with those who had shared years of his life and ministry. … Congregations should be reminded what the song really means. They should sing it as if they were part of the Easter morning story.[5]

Devotional writer Robert J. Morgan summarized the idea behind the hymn in even simpler terms:

The art of meditating on Scripture involves using one’s imagination. Instead of simply reading a passage, we must read it, close our eyes, and visualize the scene, perhaps even putting ourselves in the picture. That’s what the author of this hymn did.[6]


by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
18 September 2019


Footnotes:

  1. Carlton R. Young, “In the Garden,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 432.

  2. George W. Sanville, “In the garden,” Forty Gospel Hymn Stories (Winona Lake, IN: Rodeheaver Hall Mack, 1943), p. 14.

  3. Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden,” Crusade Hymn Stories (Chicago: Hope, 1967), pp. 49-50.

  4. Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden (An Interpretation),” The Hymn, vol. 34, no. 4 (October 1983), pp. 244-245.

  5. Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden,” The Worshiping Church: Worship Leaders’ Edition (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1992), no. 242.

  6. Robert J. Morgan, “In the Garden,” Then Sings My Soul (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), p. 271.

Related Resources:

Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden,” Crusade Hymn Stories (Chicago: Hope, 1967), pp. 49-50.

Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden,” Dictionary-Handbook to Hymns for the Living Church (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1978), p. 136.

Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden (An Interpretation),” The Hymn, vol. 34, no. 4 (October 1983), pp. 244-245: HathiTrust

“In the Garden,” Companion to the Seventh-Day Adventist Hymnal, ed. Wayne Hooper & Edward E. White (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1988), pp. 475-476.

Donald P. Hustad, “In the Garden,” The Worshiping Church: Worship Leaders’ Edition (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1992), no. 242.

Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate II: Church Music and Worship in Renewal (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1993), pp. 32-34.

Carlton R. Young, “In the Garden,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 432.

University of California Santa Barbara, Cylinder Audio Archive:
http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/index.php

“In the Garden,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/i_come_to_the_garden_alone