Before long, Joseph Hart’s hymn discussed in Part I had crossed the Atlantic and become part of the camp meetings in early nineteenth-century America. By 1811, hymnals were adding a chorus:
I will arise and go to Jesus, He will embrace me in his arms.
In the arms of my dear Savior, oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Camp meetings were some of the first places that congregational singing begin to use verse-chorus format. Many of the frontier families coming to the meetings couldn't even read a hymnal, much less memorize a long hymn. But having a chorus at the end of every stanza allowed rich and poor, slave and free, to learn the same music with the power of melody. And this chorus especially, following a powerful call to repentance, provided a perfect response--the response of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Casting Jesus as the story’s “father,” it captures perfectly the heart of a prodigal who has finally “come to himself”in repentance.
Soon musicians began printing musical notation for the songs sung in the camp meetings. In 1835, one of the most important collections of those songs (bonus: its collector, William Walker, was from Spartanburg!) included a mournful tune. Like many tunes of plain Appalachian and upcountry folk, it didn't sound exactly like what trained musicians call major or minor. What it was, though, was completely pentatonic, playable on a piano’s black keys alone. Used in Africa, Asia, and across Western civilization, the pentatonic scale is one of the easiest ways to pass music across cultures.
It didn't take long for future editions and other hymnals to set "Come, Ye Sinners" and its chorus to this mournful pentatonic tune. As more Americans moved to cities after the Civil War, Ira Sankey and D.L. Moody used a different tune with “Come, Ye Sinners.” But in 1977, the old Appalachian tune got some major publicity. Several current members of our own church family were involved in making Sheffey, based on the true story of a teenage rebel turned circuit-riding preacher.
Sheffey includes a powerful scene from an 1869 camp meeting in Wabash, Indiana. The service ends with an altar call, and composer Dwight Gustafson chose to underscore the invitation with “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy.” According to sources from the filming, several local townspeople who been brought in as extras literally made professions of faith in Christ during the scene’s filming.
The scene left a huge impression on me when I saw the film as a child. Any time I sing “Come, Ye Sinners” now, it’s hard to think of anything but Americans in the 1970s getting saved during a filmed reenactment of an 1869 camp meeting underscored with a 1759 hymn that Americans had loved almost ever since.
No matter where you are today--arise, and go to Jesus!