Born April 21, 1856Johnson Oatman Jr. of New Jersey followed the foot-steps of his father, Johnson Oatman Sr., in many ways. He accepted his father’s faith, making it his own. They worked side by side in the family mercantile business, Johnson Oatman and Son. Although the son sang, his father outshined him with his incredible voice, known not only in the local Methodist Episcopal Church, but throughout the area. Johnson Oatman Jr. would soon find his own niche within Christianity.
When he was nineteen, the younger Johnson became an ordained minister. He served where needed, but never pastored his own church. At age thirty-six, he tried his hand at hymn-writing. He went on to write at least 5,000 hymns in his lifetime.
Here are some of his songs people are still singing.
“NO NOT ONE” (1895)
Not only is the hymn Christ-centric. It concentrates on the qualities of Jesus as the Christian’s constant companion. The chorus reminds, “He will guide till the day is done.”
The song begins by assuring us “There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus. No, not one! No, not one!” Verse three reminds us of the Lord’s promise to never leave His followers: “There’s not an hour that He is not near us. No, not one! No, not one!” Verse four speaks of Jesus’ desire to help all who need Him: “Did ever saint find this friend forsake him? No, not one! No, not one! Or sinner find that He would not take him No, not one! No, not one!”
The hymn “No Not One” rang true for so many that a year after it was first published, 30 other hymnals included it.
“COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS” (1897)
This is no doubt Johnson’s most well-known song. While catching on in the United States, it gained extreme favor in England. Evangelist Rodney “Gypsy” Smith reported that “In London, the men sing it, the boys whistle it, and the women rock their babies to sleep on this hymn.”
The first three of the four verses contrast a person dwelling on their problems with the better choice of enumerating God’s blessings.The opening verse paints the picture of a ship in a storm at sea. It says “When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed, When you are discouraged thinking all is lost…” Verse two asks the question, “Are you ever burdened with a load of care, Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?” The third verse suggests “When you look at others with their lands and gold, Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold. Count your many blessings money cannot buy.”
Verse four concludes with the remedy for these three situations, and many others.
“So amid the conflict whether great or small, Do not be discouraged, God is over all; Count your many blessings Angels will attend, Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.”
“HIGHER GROUND” (1898)The song “Higher Ground” expresses a heart-felt desire for a stronger experience with God. After each verse, the chorus states “Lord lift me up and let me stand, By faith on Heaven’s table-land; A higher plane than I have found– Lord plant my feet on higher ground.”
Charles Gabriel provided the tune. In the first couple of decades of the 20th century, Charles reigned as the king of evangelical hymns.
Although he penned over 5,000 hymns, Johnson never saw song writing as a financial venture. Upon his request, he was paid only $1.00 for each song. Phil Kerr, Christian musician and author of books about gospel music once made the statement, “Imagine receiving only one dollar for writing “Higher Ground!”
“THE HALLELUJAH SIDE” (1898)
This song compares the eternal wealth of the Christian life with the world’s poor substitutes. The author introduces himself as “Once a sinner far from Jesus,” who is now “safe in God’s pavilion.” Life is better now, “For my soul is filled with music and my heart with great delight.” The contrasts continue.
He sees beyond the world’s “dazzle and her dreams” to recognize “her vanities and pride.” The devil has tempted him to trade down for “earth’s golden millions.” But they can’t match “His love and grace.”
“THE LAST MILE OF THE WAY” (1908)
This song was published only one year before Wilhelmina, his wife of thirty-one years, passed away. Johnson had another seventeen years before the last mile of his life on earth.
“If I walk in the pathway of duty,
If I work till the close of the day;
I shall see the great King in His beauty,
When I’ve gone the last mile of the way.”
Following verse one, Johnson identifies Christian service that God will reward: “If for Christ I proclaim the glad story, If I seek for His sheep gone astray,” and later, “And if here I have earnestly striven, And have tried all His will to obey.” The third verse mentions one of the benefits of Heaven as “No sickness, no sighing forever,” and the chorus covers all else our imaginations can’t begin to fathom with the phrase: “And I know there are joys that await me, When I’ve gone the last mile of the way.”
LET ME KNOW: How has Johnson’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
- Hall, J. H. Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1914.
- Kerr, Phil. Music in Evangelism. Glendale, California:Gospel Music Publishers, 1939.
- Morgan, Robert. Then Sings My Soul. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2003.
- Osbeck, Kennth. 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1982.
- Petersen, William J. and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.
- You can hear “No No One” sung by Lenny Leblanc, The Martins, Maranatha! Praise Band, and others at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=no+not+one.
- Guy Penrod, the Jackson Gospel Singers, and more sing “Count Your Blessings” at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=count+your+blessings+name+them+one+by+one.
- You can listen to various versions of “Higher Ground” at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=higher+ground+johnson+oatman.
- ll find many renditions of “The Hallelujah Side” at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=the+hallelujah+side+.
- Among those you’ll find singing “The Last Mile of the Way” are Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson at http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=the+last+mile+of+the+way+gospel.