Dr. Roger D Duke
“How Firm a Foundation” © A Homily! A Hymn! A Hope! But who wrote it?
“How Firm a Foundation” ©
A Homily! A Hymn! A Hope!
But who wrote it?
“The Story Behind the Hymn”
Roger D Duke ©
Whenever I am privileged to hear this marvelous composition, my mind is taken back some 50+ years. Even a faint encounter with the words or tune tend to affect an inner sense of worship and reflection. Afresh and anew, I am encouraged by the homily, the hymn, and the ultimate hope it contains. It is the theme-song of “Through the Bible” radio program with Dr. J. Vernon McGee. For those who may not know, McGee’s radio format was to teach the entire Word of God to the entire world through every five years. Then after his death, his organization set about to repeat the process and format in perpetuity by what Dr. McGee had previously recorded. This author is not sure if the hymn has always been the motif song of the series or not? But the two will always be wedded in my heart. This single poem possesses a sermon with rhetoric that would make Aristotle proud. It contains allusions to Scripture that carry the hope one can have in the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone. And additionally, it serves as a container of hope with encouragement and exhortation for those who follow Christ! It answers the question “What more can he say than to you He hath said”?
One name not as renown in English hymnody as those of Charles Wesley, “Dr. Watts,” William Cowper, or John Newton is that of Dr. John Rippon. He was the shepherd of the Carter’s Lane Baptist Church. He pastored them “from 1773 to 1836,” it was “a Particular Baptist church in London.” He preached and ministered to them a total of sixty-three years. Both as pastor and individual, he was a man of sterling reputation and influence amongst his peers. No doubt, his most lasting contribution to hymnody was the publication of an edited volume entitled: “‘A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors Intended to be an Appendix to Dr. Watts Psalms and Hymns.’ By John Rippon. A.M.”
Rippon and his people were committed, as most churches were at the time, to singing the Psalms in their public worship. Neither he nor his congregation wished to put away the use of the beloved Psalter as hymnbook. However, they came to understand that special songs were needful for worship for unique occasions These Dr. Watts seemed to have either omitted or overlooked in his contemporary volume. Because of the perceived need, “he was led to publish” his songbook for worship. Even though not as well-known personally, “Dr. Rippon must be credited with the very great service he rendered to hymnody” by this published work.
Rippon’s “A Selection of Hymns” was a compilation mainly of heretofore unpublished pieces. Our consideration, “How Firm a Foundation,” was carefully chosen by Rippon for this new volume. He had a habit of printing the author’s name above the hymn. “This hymn is one of three to which the only signature is the letter ‘K’ followed by a dash.” Note that, “[t]he other two [hymns], beginning, ‘In songs of sublime adoration and praise,’ and ‘The Bible is justly esteemed,’ did not arouse much interest.” On the other hand, the authorship of this hymn has always been something of a mystery since the first time it was ever sung. How is it that such a great hymn that has blest so many should remain anonymous? Who is the “K” associated with “How Firm a Foundation”—remained is a mystery? This conundrum has caused not a little discussion since Rippon’s publication.
Benson, the musicologist, mused how,
. . . the authorship of this one seems to have been discussed from the first, and ever since has excited much curiosity and speculation. Such a problem has its own fascination. One cannot but think of the unknown writer, all unconscious that by signing his name to the hymn he would have won immortality, and of the other people who [also] knew the secret, but are not here to answer our questions.
Robert Morgan also observed, “No one knows its author, for the line reserved for the author’s name simply bore the letter K. Many scholars attribute the composition to Keene” or Kirkham or Keith.
Brown and Norton in The One Year Book of Hymns offer an insightful answer for inquiring minds. “The title of the hymn was [originally] ‘Scripture Promises,’ and in the 1787 hymnbook the words of 2 Peter 1: 4 were printed about the stanza: ‘Exceeding great and precious promises.’ (KJV).” They go on to assert concerning the mystery, “Most musicologists now agree that John Rippon’s assistant, Robert Keene, was probably the author” (emphasis added). Maybe the matter is settled. Maybe it is not? Only eternity will tell.
The hymnal Rippon produced was well received and immediately popular with the churches. There were eleven printed editions in England before the pastor’s death in 1836. There was also one edition published in Philadelphia by 1820 for the Baptist churches. Because of its widespread usage amongst the sect, it was often referred to as an “unofficial hymn textbook” for the Baptist congregations of New England. In addition, “How Firm a Foundation,” was a broadly sung by both the Northern and the Southern armies during The War Between the States. It also came to be included in most American publications of the day.
One remembered anecdote seems to capture the ethos as well as pathos of what this precious old hymn has mean to many since its inception. The recollection is captured in The Sunday-School Times on December 7th, 1901. The story was related by Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis Guild, Jr., who was the late Inspector-General of the Seventh Army Corps. The Corps was bivouacked among the hills of Quemados approximate to Havana, Cuba. On Christmas Eve, Guild sat in the door of his tent on an airy tropical night fellowshipping with fellow officer. Because they were separated from their families the two spoke longingly of Christmas, hearth, and home. Suddenly, the sentinel’s call came, “Number ten; twelve o’clock, and all’s well!” It was Christmas morning!
Just as the cry of the sentinel died away, a familiar note was struck-up from one of the band member’s tents. There arose the music from an old, familiar, and beloved hymn. And one, clear, resonant baritone voice began to sing out: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord!” One voice jointed in, then another, then another; until the entire regiment was singing. And then the Fourth Virginia began to sing and was joined by the Sixth Missouri and all the “rest, till there, on the long ridges above the great city whence Spanish tyranny once went forth to enslave the New World, a whole American army corps was singing: —"
Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed.
I, I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My Gracious, omnipotent hand.
These two comrades in arms had heretofore been on the opposite side of the terrible carnage of the late war—The War Between the States. “The Northern soldier knew the hymn as one he had learned beside his mother’s knee.” And “[to] the Southern soldier it was that and something more; it was the favorite hymn of General Robert E. Lee and was sung at that great commander’s funeral.”
“How Firm a Foundation” has been a favorite hymn and personal testimonial of so many of God’s children since it was first appeared in Dr. Rippon’s “A Selection of Hymns.” Who knew that some historically obscurantist hymn with only a “K” inscribed above as author would be such a blessing to men of renown such as Theodore Roosevelt? Why even President Andrew Jackson requested it to be sung at his bedside shortly before he died at the Hermitage. These old and beloved lines absolutely drip with an awareness of God’s powerful work in our lives. We can hear His voice from the Scripture as the Holy Spirit brings them to life in our heart. Afraid? There is God’s Word for your fear! Tried? He pledged to bless you with His presence! And “[it’s] no surprise that the hymn was originally titled ‘Scripture Promises.’”
The first stanza, in the sermonic genre style, rehearses the established foundation of Christianity as the written Word of God: But not only that, it asserts that it is the living, breathing, Word of God. The challenge of a rhetorical question is posed for the reader/singer to ponder: “What more can He say than to you He has said/To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?” Thus, the composter establishes his mini sermon prompting the worshipper to consider the depth of what has been given them in the Eternal Word of God. The lyrics call to remembrance Jesus Christ our Lord as the Living and Everlasting Word:
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord
Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word!
What more can he say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
This hope is taken from Isaiah 41: 10— “Fear thou not, for I am with thee, be not dismayed, for I am thy God” (KJV). . ..
Fear not I am with thee o be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid:
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous omnipotent hand.
This hope is taken from Isaiah 43: 2— “When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee” (KJV). . ..
When thru the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow.
For I will be with thee thy troubles to blees,
And sanctify thee in thy deepest distress.
This hope comes from 2 Corinthians 12: 9— “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is mad perfect in weakness” (KJV). . ..
When thru fiery trials thy pathway shall lead,
My grace all sufficient, shall be thy supply,
The flame shall not hurt thee—
I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
This hope comes to us from Hebrews 13: 5— “I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (KJV). . ..
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes.
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never—no, never—no never forsake!
An Optional Stanza
E'en down to old age all my people shall prove My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love; And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn, Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.
A Homily! A Hymn! A Hope!
This is undoubtedly one of the great hymns of all time. Whenever its melody is sung, most who have any Evangelical or Christian influence will begin to hum or sing its words from the overflow of their heart. A poem? Yes, a poem and more. A homily? Yes, a sermon indeed. A bit of classical rhetoric? Yes, especially when it inquires, “What more can he say than to you He hath said”? It contains a hope—the hope of the Gospel of Christ. The hope that Jesus pledged to us “I’ll never—no, never—no never forsake!”
Now you know “The Story Behind the Hymn!” ©
 The “Through the Bible” radio program with Dr. J. Vernon McGee has the motto “The Whole Bible for the Whole World.”  Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 Christmas, Easter, and All-Time Favorite Hymn Stories (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2010), 165.  Louis F. Benson, Studies of Familiar Hymns, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1903), 38.  Benson, 38.  Benson, 38.  Benson, 38.  Reader’s Note: in Louis F. Benson’s Studies of Familiar Hymns chapter “How Firm a Foundation” pp. 37-50, he discusses at length the different evidence that argue who “K” might possibly be. The reader is encouraged to acquire and read for him or herself who might fit the bill.  Benson, 40.  Morgan, 165.  Benson, 44. Please see note 7 above.  Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, eds., The One Year Book of Hymns (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1995), February 9 selection.  Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), 97.  Benson, 47.  Benson, 47-48.  Benson, 48.  Benson, 48  Osbeck, 97.  Randy Peterson, Be Still My Soul: The Inspiring Stories behind 175 of the Most-Beloved Hymns (Carol Stream, Ill., 2014), 119  Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, 2nd ed., ( Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002), 14.  Tom Fettke, sen. ed., “How Firm a Foundation,” in The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration (Waco: Word Music, MCMLXXXVI), 275.  Osbeck, Amazing Grace, 14.  Osbeck, Amazing Grace, 14.  Osbeck, Amazing Grace, 14.  Osbeck, Amazing Grace, 14.  This optional Stanza 6 is Stanza 5 in edition of The Orthodox Presbyterian Hymnal, it is titled “Adete Fideles,” it was retrieved from https://opc.org/hymn.html?hymn_id=287 on April 1, 2022.