Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

What a fellowship, what a joy divine

with
SHOWALTER

This hymn was created collaboratively between A.J. Showalter (1858–1924) and Elisha A. Hoffman (1839–1929). In the Handbook to the Mennonite Hymnary (1949), editor Lester Hostetler provided Showalter’s first-person account of the creation of the hymn:

While I was conducting a singing-school at Hartsells, Alabama, I received a letter from two of my former pupils in South Carolina, conveying the sad intelligence that on the same day each of them had buried a wife. I tried to console them by writing a letter that might prove helpful in their hour of sadness. Among other Scriptures, I quoted this passage, “Underneath are the everlasting arms” [Deut. 33:27, KVJ]. Before completing the writing of the sentence, the thought came to me that the fact that we may lean on these everlasting arms and find comfort and strength, ought to be put in a song; and before finishing that letter, the words and music of the refrain were written. The manuscript was sent to Elisha Hoffman. … in a few days his completion of the poem was received (pp. 280-281).

Hostetler’s source for this account is unknown (Showalter being deceased 25 years prior). According to descendants of one of Showalter’s acquaintances, Showalter completed the song at the home of Isaac L. Magill (1839–1925) in Catoosa County, Georgia. One daughter, Myrtle Magill Stubblefield (1873–1949) passed down stories of “Showalter sitting in their parlor at the piano one Sunday afternoon after church services at Old Stone Church, pulling from his pocket words recently sent him from Hoffman and developing the melody to ‘Leaning on the everlasting arms.’ … Later that evening, they returned for church services, and the completed song was performed for the congregation.”[1] The First Presbyterian Church of Dalton, GA, contends their church organist Mrs. W.J. Manly was the one of the first to play it when “Showalter asked Manly to play the hymn to see if it was singable.”

In 1887, Showalter published two nearly identical collections, The Glad Evangel and The Song Evangel. The Song Evangel is probably the earliest of the two; it is possible Showalter changed the name to avoid confusion with The Song Evangel (1873) edited by Edward Payson Hammond, and as hymnologist Carl Daw has pointed out, “its table of contents is reprinted without change in the other one [The Glad Evangel], despite the fact that one hymn was replaced”[2]. “Leaning on the everlasting arms” was the first song in both 1887 collections.

Fig. 1. The Glad Evangel (Dalton, GA: A.J. Showalter, 1887).

The original form of the hymn in three stanzas is usually reprinted without alteration. The tune is usually labeled SHOWALTER, although in a few cases it is called LEANING or LEANING ON JESUS. The melody has a modest range of only a sixth, making it easily singable. The repeated melodic shapes and familiar half-cadence/authentic-cadence structures also aid in quick retention. The original printing uses a brief D.S. repeat in order to save space on the page.

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
30 July 2019


Footnotes:

  1. Randall Franks, “Leaning on the everlasting arms: Catoosa County’s place in gospel music history,” The Catoosa County News (12 Jan. 2005), p. 12B: Google Books

  2. Carl P. Daw Jr., “What a fellowship, what a joy divine,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016), p. 799.

Related Resources:

Lester Hostetler, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine,” Handbook to the Mennonite Hymnary (Newton, KS: General Conference, 1949), pp. 280-281.

Harry Eskew, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine,” Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), p. 269.

Randall Franks, “Leaning on the everlasting arms: Catoosa County’s place in gospel music history,” The Catoosa County News (12 Jan. 2005), p. 12B: Google Books

Carl P. Daw Jr., “What a fellowship, what a joy divine,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2016), p. 799.

“Leaning on the everlasting arms,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/what_a_fellowship_what_a_joy_divine