Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

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Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

The final blessing of Moses on the people of Israel is described in chapter 33 of Deuteronomy. The first part of verse 27 goes like this (ESV):

The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.

The famous American hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” was published in 1887, and was composed by two Presbyterian men, namely Anthony J. Showalter and Elisha Hoffman. It was Showalter who received the initial inspiration, writing the refrain and the melody, reportedly after reaching for the above scriptural verse to console two former students of his who had both recently lost their wives. He then asked Hoffman—a prodigious hymn-writer credited with over 2000 religious songs—if he could come up with lyrics for the verses. Naturally he could.

In looking into the history of this song, I found the text of an old book online, written by one J.H. Hall, filled with short biographies of various composers of gospel songs. It includes this passage on Elisha Hoffman:

Mr. Hoffman’s first impressions of music came from hearing the voice of sacred song in the home. His parents both had sweet voices and sang well. It was their custom, in the hour of family worship, both morning and evening, to sing one or two hymns. The children early became familiar with these hymns and learned to love them and to feel their hallowing and refining power. Their lives were marvellously influenced by this little service of song in the home. A taste for sacred music was created and developed, and song became as natural a function of the soul as breathing was a function of the body.

As natural a function of the soul as breathing is of the body: What an inspired way of thinking about the singing of these kinds of songs. It immediately reminded me of the quote highlighted in this space last week from Abraham Joshua Heschel, where he says of losing oneself to prayerful music that: “it is not an escape but a return to one’s origins.”

The original words of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” go like this:

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.

O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
O how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

The song seems to be voiced by someone who is in possession of the perfect peace which must come from fully trusting in God. Yet, I don’t know that Messrs. Showalter and Hoffman felt that way all of the time. Who does? If you’re like me, you may have have been lucky enough to know one or two people who seemed to possess and project that kind of peace. Even then one doesn’t necessarily know about their lowest moments. But I know that singing this song, or listening to it sung, can evoke that kind of peace, momentarily, in oneself, and serve as a reminder of what a precious a gift it is. Like all of the most affecting hymns and gospel songs, it can re-center you, and send you on your way a little bit strengthened and a little more blessed.

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” has not been so kindly treated by the cinematic community. In the film “Night of the Hunter” from 1955, Robert Mitchum plays an evil preacher and killer who keeps showing up ominously singing this song. And in the Coen brothers’ remake of “True Grit” from 2010, the tune recurs again and again as part of the score, almost certainly in homage to “Night of the Hunter.” The version which Iris Dement sings for the film fairly drips with irony, I think, to the point where it is almost vitriolic. That’s subjective, of-course; I could be wrong, and I’d be glad if I was, because I’m not really a fan of vitriol in gospel performances.

On the other hand, the second half of that verse 27 from chapter 33 of Deuteronomy goes, “And he thrust out the enemy before you and said, Destroy.” Which just goes to show that life has always been complicated.

No irony, however, in Mahalia Jackson’s performance of the song, embedded below via YouTube. You’ve got to believe that she is resting somewhere in the close vicinity of those everlasting arms right now.