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Although a number of America’s great poets wrote hymns, it was not given to any one of them to compose America’s finest Christian lyric. Bryant wrote “Look from Thy sphere of endless day,” Whittier was the author of “Dear Lord and Father of mankind,” Holmes composed “O Love Divine, that stooped to share,” and Longfellow has given us “I heard the bells of Christmas day;” but, beautiful as these hymns are, none of them can compare with “My faith looks up to Thee.” This, “the most precious contribution which American genius has yet made to the hymnology of the Christian Church,” came from the pen of a very humble but gifted minister, Ray Palmer.

Palmer, who was born at Little Compton, R. I., November 12, 1808, was a direct descendant of John Alden and his good wife, Priscilla. One of his forebears was William Palmer, who came to Plymouth in 1621.

Through pressure of poverty Ray found it necessary to leave home at the age of thirteen, after having received a grammar education. For two years he clerked in a Boston dry goods store, during which time he passed through some deep spiritual experiences, with the result that he gave his heart to God.

Friends who recognized unusual gifts in the young man urged him to attend school. Eventually he graduated from Phillips Andover Academy and from Yale. For a while he taught in New York and New Haven, but in 1835 he was 384 ordained to the Congregational ministry. He served a congregation in Bath, Maine, for fifteen years, and another at Albany, N. Y., for a like period, after which he became Corresponding Secretary of the American Congregational Union, a position which he held until 1878, when he was compelled to retire because of failing health.

It was while he was teaching in New York City that “My faith looks up to Thee” was written. He was only twenty-two years old at the time, and he had no thought when writing it that he was composing a hymn for general use. He tells in his own account of the hymn how he had been reading a little German poem of two stanzas, picturing a penitent sinner before the cross. Deeply moved by the lines, he translated them into English, and then added the four stanzas that form his own hymn.

The words of the hymn, he tells us, were born out of his own spiritual experience.

“I gave form to what I felt, by writing, with little effort, the stanzas,” he said. “I recollect I wrote them with very tender emotion, and ended the last lines with tears.”

“A ransomed soul!” Who would not have been moved to deep emotion after having written a poem with such a sublime closing line!

This happened in the year 1832, almost a hundred years ago.

Palmer copied the poem into a little note-book which he constantly carried in his pocket. Frequently he would read it as a part of his private devotion. It never seemed to occur to him that it might some day be used as a hymn.

But God was watching over that little poem. One day as Palmer was walking along the busy streets of Boston, he chanced to meet Lowell Mason, the famous musician and 385 composer of Savannah, Ga. Mason was compiling a hymn-book at the time and asked Palmer, who had established something of a reputation as a poet, if he could give him some words for which he could compose music. Palmer remembered the poem in his note-book, and, while the two men stepped into a nearby store, a copy of the poem was made and given to Mason.

When the two men met again a few days later, Mason exclaimed: “Dr. Palmer, you may live many years and do many good things, but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author of ‘My faith looks up to Thee.’”

Mason wrote the beautiful tune known as “Olivet” for the hymn, and perhaps the music contributed as much as the words to endear it to the hearts of millions. Certainly here is an instance where words and music are wedded, and should never be parted asunder.

Palmer wrote many other splendid hymns. Some of his most famous are translations from the Latin. His rendering of the noted hymn of Bernard of Clairvaux, “O Jesus, Joy of loving hearts,” is a gem of wondrous beauty. It has become a favorite communion hymn.

In his ministry Palmer laid much emphasis on the Lord’s Supper, and many of his hymns were written for communion services. He once said, in a communion address: “When the cares and the business of life have hurried me hither and thither with no little distraction of mind, I love to come back again, and sit down before the cross, and gaze on the blessed Sufferer with silent, tender memories. It is like coming once more into the sunshine after long walking through gloom and mist.”

Palmer’s whole life was characterized by a warm, almost passionate, devotion to Christ. His faith in the Saviour was 386 so childlike and strong that it enabled him to rise above all external burdens and trials. Something of his personal love to Christ may be seen beautifully reflected in his hymn, “Jesus, these eyes have never seen,” which was his own favorite and which many regard as inferior only to “My faith looks up to Thee.” It is such an appealing lyric, we feel we must quote it in full.

Jesus, these eyes have never seen

That radiant form of Thine!

The veil of sense hangs dark between

Thy blessed face and mine!

I see Thee not, I hear Thee not,

Yet art Thou oft with me!

And earth hath ne’er so dear a spot

As where I meet with Thee.

Like some bright dream that comes unsought,

When slumbers o’er me roll,

Thine image ever fills my thought,

And charms my ravished soul.

Yet though I have not seen, and still

Must rest in faith alone,

I love Thee, dearest Lord, and will,

Unseen, but not unknown.

When death these mortal eyes shall seal,

And still this throbbing heart,

The rending veil shall Thee reveal,

All glorious as Thou art.

Palmer looked upon his hymns as gifts from heaven, and therefore he refused to accept money for their use. He insisted, however, that those who published his hymns should print them exactly as they were written. He regarded the 387 somewhat common practice of tampering with texts as “immoral.”

Palmer died in 1887. On the day before he breathed his last, he was heard repeating feebly the last stanza of his favorite hymn:

When death these mortal eyes shall seal,

And still this throbbing heart,

The rending veil shall Thee reveal,

All glorious as Thou art.

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