The Solid Rock
My hope is built on nothing less
with SOLID ROCK
Text: Origins & Development. The first printing of Edward Mote’s most famous hymn, “The Solid Rock,” was in The Spiritual Magazine, vol. 1, no. 8 (ca. Dec. 1824), where it appeared in six stanzas of six lines, unattributed, without music, and headed “The Immutable Basis of a Sinner’s Hope” (Fig. 1). This original version began with the line “Not earth, nor hell my soul can move,” and each stanza ended with the two-line refrain, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.”
Fig. 1. The Spiritual Magazine, vol. 1, no. 8 (ca. Dec. 1824).
The hymn then appeared in the appendix of the 2nd edition of A Collection of Psalms and Hymns from Evangelical Authors (1826), compiled by John Rees (Fig. 2), again unattributed. In this version, Rees had condensed the first two stanzas into a new one beginning “My hope is built on nothing less,” and he reduced the hymn to four stanzas, setting a precedent that would become the normative version of the hymn. Other important changes include the lines “I rest on his unchanging grace,” and “In every high and stormy gale.”
Fig. 2. John Rees, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns from Evangelical Authors, 2nd ed. with Appendix (London, 1826). Images courtesy of Eric Stedfeld, from Union Theological Seminary, Burke Library.
In 1836, the hymn appeared again in its full form in Edward Mote’s Hymns of Praise (London, 1836 | Fig. 3). It was marked “Original,” meaning Mote claimed it as his own hymn. Mote made a change similar to what Rees had done, “I rest upon unchanging grace,” and tweaked the line “His oath, his cov’nant, and his blood.” Note the inclusion of the same heading from 1824.
In 1850, the hymn appeared in Jonathan Whittemore’s Supplement to All Hymn Books, in four stanzas, based on Rees’ 1826 version, with new alterations in the final stanza, “When the last awful trump shall sound, O may I then in Him be found,” which might have been a borrowing from the hymn “Guide of my youth! to Thee I cry” (stanza 3: “Cleans’d in Thy blood may I be found, when the last awful trump shall sound”).
Other changes are less clear. The line “Support me in the whelming flood” seems to have come from William Bradbury’s Golden Censer (NY, 1864). The line “When he shall come with trumpet sound” appeared as early as 1887 in Daniel Towner’s Hymns New and Old.
Whittemore’s collection, like several others at the time, credited the hymn to Rees, owing to its appearance in his 1826 collection. Mote defended his authorship in a letter to The Gospel Herald, vol. 20 (1852 | PDF), pp. 284-285:
That there is no plagiarism in adopting that hymn as my own, it may not be uninteresting, and may satisfy the minds of many who have seen it in Rees’, Denham’s, Gadsby’s, and other selections, with Rees as the author, and in mine as the original, if I give the outline of its history.
One morning it came unto my mind as I went to labour, to write an hymn on the ‘Gracious Experience of a Christian.’ As I went up Holborn, I had the chorus, ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.’ In the day I had the four first verses complete, and wrote them off. On the Sabbath following, I met brother King as I came out of Lisle Street Meeting . . . who informed me that his wife was very ill, and asked me to call and see her. I had an early tea, and called afterwards. He said that it was his usual custom to sing a hymn, read a portion, and engage in prayer, before he went to meeting. He looked for his hymn book but could find it nowhere. I said, ‘I have some verses in my pocket; if he liked, we would sing them.’ We did; and his wife enjoyed them so much, that after service he asked me, as a favour, to leave a copy of them for his wife. I went home, and by the fireside composed the last two verses, wrote the whole off, and took them to sister King, and visited her every day after tea, while she lived (five or six days); and never had more heavenly converse with a saint of God than in those heavenly, heart-replenishing visits, we mutually rejoiced in the great things of God.
As these verses so met the dying woman’s case, my attention to them was the more arrested, and I had a thousand printed for distribution. I sent one to The Spiritual Magazine, without my initials, which appeared some time after this. Brother Rees, of Crown Street, Soho, brought out an edition of hymns, and this hymn was in it. David Denham introduced it with Rees’ name, and others after. … Your inserting this brief outline may in future shield me from the charge of stealth, and be a vindication of truthfulness in my connection with the church of God. Wishing you every grace and blessing from the throne eternal, your sincere well wisher in Christ the Lord. Edward Mote.”
A later edition of The Gospel Herald (1880), p. 18, claimed “the hymn was written in 1825, on the occasion of the author hearing of an awful shipwreck on the Goodwin Sands.” This does not accord directly with Mote’s story, but the general dangers of seafaring in that area likely had an influence on Mote’s references to stormy gales and sinking floods. Goodwin Sands was notorious for shipwrecks. One particular account from the time period in The Annual Register, November 1825, pp. 155-156 (HathiTrust) described the complete destruction of a trade ship known as Ogle Castle. This wreck might have been what the writer of The Gospel Herald had in mind, but that event postdates the first publication of the hymn, circa December 1824, and therefore could not have been a direct inspiration for Mote’s text.
Text: Analysis. The refrain reflects the imagery given in Matthew 7:24-27, regarding the wise man who built his house on the rock, and the foolish man who built his house on the sand. The bold claim of a Christian’s hope being built on nothing but the blood of Christ is summed up well in 1 Corinthians 3:11, “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ,” or Hebrews 6:19-20.
The seafaring metaphors (gales, anchors, floods, etc.) could be inspired by real-life events and experiences, as Mote lived in a time when boats were still a vital form of transportation. These same images are common and prominent in many other hymns, such as “It is well,” “Eternal Father, strong to save,” and “The storm is passing over.” Scriptural allusions for these images include Isaiah 43:2 (“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you”) and Psalm 107:23-30.
The “burning lake” undoubtedly refers to the lake of fire in Revelation 20. The idea of being dressed in righteousness could either refer to the breastplate of righteousness in Isaiah 59:17 and Ephesians 6:14, or the robe of righteousness mentioned Job 29:14 and Isaiah 61:10, or thinking in the context of standing before the throne, the robes washed white by the blood of the Lamb in Revelation 7.
Tune. This text is most commonly set to the tune SOLID ROCK by William Bradbury (1816–1868), for the Golden Censer (1864 | Fig. 4). The tune has a strong, confident quality, emphasizing the main idea of the text. Bradbury’s version reduced the hymn to three stanzas and introduced the alteration in stanza three (“whelming”). Bradbury’s tune also appeared in his Devotional Hymn and Tune Book that same year.
Adaptation. In modern forms of worship, one notable adaptation has gained some currency: the song “Cornerstone” by Reuben Morgan, Jonas Myrin, and Eric Liljero, first published on the Hillsong album Cornerstone (2012 | Amazon). This version takes some melodic cues from Bradbury’s tune while using much of Mote’s text, but it offers a completely new refrain: “Christ alone, Cornerstone; weak made strong in the Savior’s love; through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.”
This adaptation was written in 2011 in response to the bombing and shooting in Norway on 22 July 2011 that left 77 persons dead. Reuben Morgan recalled the circumstances in an interview with Hannah Goodwyn of CBN in 2012 (link):
Last year when that happened … I was in Scandinavia, and I was leading worship at our church there in Stockholm. As you can imagine, everyone was just really shaken by the event. It’s the kind of thing that turns the place upside down. Everybody is related or knows somebody that is affected. So I got together with a couple of my friends, and we were talking about it. We just wanted to write a song that was going to help [the] church respond to people coming to church, respond to what had happened, and just be able to make a bit of sense of it. We wrote [“Cornerstone”] basically because that hymn says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” That just felt like the right thing to be singing. … To me, there's nothing else you want to be singing in a time like that … projecting that Christ is the foundation, even when everything looks uncertain.
by CHRIS FENNER
with MERRIL SMOAK
for Hymnology Archive
18 September 2018
Hannah Goodwyn, “Artist Interview: Hillsong LIVE Sings for Christ Alone, the Cornerstone”:
W.R. Stevenson, “Edward Mote,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 771: Google Books
“My hope is built on nothing less” at Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson, “My hope is built on nothing less,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: