The exact circumstances of the composition of this hymn are not known, but Fanny Crosby did give some insight into her creative process in her autobiography, Memories of Eighty Years (1906 | PDF), pp. 167-168:
In composing hymn-poems there are several ways of working. Often subjects are given to me to which melodies must be adapted. At other times the melody is played for me and I think of various subjects appropriate to the music. In a successful song, words and music must harmonize, not only in number of syllables, but in subject matter and especially accent. In nine cases out of ten, the success of a hymn depends directly upon these qualities. Thus, melodies tell their own tale, and it is the purpose of the poet to interpret this musical story into language.
Analysis. Crosby met Doane for the first time in 1867 in New York (Memories, pp. 123-125), and by that time, Crosby was already a coveted lyricist. In this case, either the words or the melody could have been written first—she worked both ways—but they do ‘harmonize’, as she says, very well together. The tune has a stately, grand quality. The refrain, “Praise the Lord,” evokes a fanfare fit for a King.
The text follows suit. The opening lines have a creedal quality and a clear statement of the means of salvation, which might be significant factors in its widespread adoption. The third stanza appeals directly to the grandeur of the tune by imagining a heavenly scene, one which is “purer, and higher, and greater.” The refrain is a planet-wide call to worship.
Connoisseurs of Crosby’s hymns often point out how this text differs from many of her other texts insofar as it is not a message of personal testimony; rather, it has a more didactic, theological quality.
Development. By some accounts, the hymn was not immediately popular or well known in the United States. It was not included, for example, in the American Gospel Hymns series (1875–1894) by Ira Sankey, but it was included in the corresponding British series Sacred Songs and Solos (1873–), starting with Sacred Songs and Solos No. 2 (n.d. | WorldCat). Thus the hymn seems to have had a little more currency in the U.K. than in the U.S., at least initially. It enjoyed a resurgence in the mid 20th century, owing to its prominent use in the crusades of Billy Graham. Cliff Barrows, in Crusade Hymn Stories (Hope Publishing, 1967 | WorldCat), explained his involvement:
In Great Britain, this same hymn never faded into oblivion as it did in the United States. I heard it sung there in 1952 during one of our early visits. Later, it was suggested for inclusion in the songbook we were compiling for the London crusade of 1954. Because of its strong text of praise and its attractive melody, I agreed. We introduced the hymn during the early days of those meetings in Harringay Arena. As a result, Billy Graham asked that we repeat it often because he was impressed with the enthusiastic participation of the audience. In the closing weeks of the crusade, it became our theme hymn, repeated almost every night. The words well expressed our praise to God, who was doing wondrous things in Britain. Returning to America, we brought the hymn with us and used it first in the Nashville, Tennessee crusade of August 1954.
Of all the songs that have been popularized through crusade activity, we are most happy about this one. Its testimony should rebound in the heart of every Christian; every area of a person’s life should reflect this witness, “To God be the glory.”
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Storage
19 September 2018
“To God be the glory” on Hymnary.org: