HYMN WRITERS ALFRED ACKLEY and JULIA JOHNSTON

ALFRED ACKLEY        Born January 21, 1887

“Why are you shouting so early in the morning?”

1930's radio. Image by Joe Haupt.

1930’s radio. Image by Joe Haupt.

Alfred’s wife asked him a fair question. What had  angered him that Easter morning was a radio preacher. Alfred had heard the man say, “You know folks, it really doesn’t make any difference to me if Christ is risen or not.”

Hearing a fellow minister blatantly misrepresent the centerpiece of the Christian faith caused Rev. Alfred Ackley to shout at the radio: “It’s a lie!”

That experience came a few days after an incident following a sermon Alfred had preached. A Jewish student had asked him, “Why should I worship a dead Jew?” Alfred had answered, “He lives! I tell you, He is not dead, but lives here and now!” He had gone on to say, “I can prove it by my own experience, as well as the testimony of countless thousands.”

Hymn-Writing Brothers

Alfred Henry Ackley was born in Spring Hill, Pennsylvania, in 1887. He loved music, as did his older brother, Bentley, who was 15 years his senior. Both went on to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London, England.

While Bentley devoted his life to playing and writing music, Alfred entered the preaching ministry. He attended Westminster Theological Seminary. In 1914, he was ordained into the Presbyterian Church. By then, Bentley was serving as pianist for Billy Sunday’s evangelist crusades.

Hymnal [PD-USA]

Hymnal [PD-USA]

Both brothers were prolific in contributing to gospel hymnody. Bentley is credited with adding music to at least 3,000 songs. Alfred wrote the words to over 1,000 hymns. Decades after their deaths, it’s Alfred’s gut-felt response to the young Jewish man and the liberal radio preacher that is most remembered today.

He Lives Or We Die

Alfred dedicated his life to preaching the gospel message. He pastored churches in Pennsylvania and California. Alfred believed and proclaimed the Apostle Paul’s declaration, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I Corinthians 15:17).

That Easter day that Alfred shouted at the radio became a red-letter day for him to proclaim the faith. At church that day in both morning and evening services, Alfred expounded on the power of Jesus’ victory over the grave. That evening, he sat down and wrote a song declaring its certainty.

The hymn, “He Lives” has survived while Alfred’s thousand other songs are not as well-remembered. For the rest of his life, Alfred preached the message of salvation through Jesus’ vicarious death and resurrection. He passed away in Wittier, California, in 1960.

Why “He Lives” Lives on

Jesus' empty tomb. Photo by upyernoz.

Jesus’ empty tomb. Photo by upyernoz.

Since 1933, when “He Lives” first appeared in a hymnal, no one has doubted Alfred’s belief that it’s true. The hymn restates what Alfred told the Jewish student: “I can prove it by my own experience, as well as the testimony of countless thousands.”

He begins with his own experience. In the first two verses, Alfred speaks eight times in the first person, using, “I see,” I hear,” I need,” “I know.” Verse one concludes with “Just the time I need Him, He’s always near.”

Alfred adds evidences he can see in the lives of others. Tapping into biblical themes that reverberate throughout scripture, he says, “I see His hand of mercy” and “In all the world around me, I see His loving care.”

Whenever Christians the world over sing “He Lives,” they testify that Alfred’s personal declarations are their own. The chorus concludes with worshipers rejoicing as they  sing, “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.”

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LET ME KNOW:  How has Alfred’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.

Bibliography—————————————————————————————————————-

  • Osbeck, Kenneth. 101 More Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1985.
  • Morgan, Robert J. Then Sings My Soul. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003.
  • Petersen, William J. and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

YouTube-

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JULIA JOHNSTON       Born January 21, 1849

Julia Johnston understood two important things. She understood God’s faithfulness to the humans He created, which she wrote about. She also understood how she could faithfully serve God. Her service took the form of using her leadership skills and desire to write to draw others closer to the Heavenly Father.

Will It Play in Peoria?

First Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois.           [PD-1923]

First Presbyterian Church, Peoria, Illinois.
[PD-1923]

In 1855, the year Julia turned six, her family moved from her birth-state of Ohio to Peoria, Illinois. Her father became the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. Julia would live in Peoria the rest of her life.

After she gained a personal faith, Julia started teaching Sunday school. She eventually became the director of the church’s Sunday school department. She retained that leadership position for 40-plus years. Along the way, Julia took to writing Sunday school curriculum for primary age children for the David C. Cook Publishing Company.

Julia became enthused about missions. She rose to the role of President of the Presbyterian Missionary Society of Peoria. She served that post for 20 years. She wrote a book titled, Fifty Missionary Heroes Every Boy and Girl Should Know which was published in 1913.

Describing God’s Grace

Julia had a passion to explain God’s grace to children and to promote His grace to adults. Her lyrics in the hymn “Grace Greater than Our Sin” (with music by Daniel Towner) were first sung in 1911. The song contrasts our desperate need and God’s great provision.

Daniel Towner.       [PD-1923]

Daniel Towner.
[PD-1923]

Verse two begins, “Sin and despair like the sea waves cold, Threaten the soul with infinite loss.” After mentioning sin’s high price, Julia describes guilt from sin verse three: “Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.” As bad as the bad news is, the good news is better. In verse one she says God offers “Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt.” But how?

The first three (of four) verses connect our hope to Jesus’ blood shed on the cross for our sins. In verse one, Julia speaks of Calvary, “where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.” The second verse contrasts our sinful condition with  grace that “Points to the refuge, the mighty cross.” In verse three Julia asks if anything can wash away the stain of sin. She answers with “Look! there is flowing a crimson tide; Whiter than snow you may be today.”

Ransomed

Five years after the most well-known of Julia’s 500 hymns was published, her second best-known song appeared in hymnals. “He Ransomed Me” taps into the scriptural truth Jesus described (speaking in the second person) as His purpose for coming to earth: “to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45).

Again Julia establishes every person’s slavery to sin with the phrases “sin and misery,” “sin and sadness,” and “sin and woe.” But His love for mankind caused Jesus to come “from glory just to rescue.” The chorus praises our Savior for being able to “take a poor lost sinner, Lift him from the miry clay and set him free.”

The ransomed sinner known as Julia Johnston continued her prolific writing and strong Christian influence until March 6, 1919. She died in Peoria and was buried in the family plot in Springdale Cemetery.

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LET ME KNOW:  How has Julia’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.

Bibliography—————————————————————————————————————-

  • Morgan, Robert J. Then Sings My Soul. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Inc., 2003.
  • Petersen, William J. and Ardyth Petersen. The Complete Book of Hymns. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

Julia’s book Fifty Missionary Heroes Every Boy and Girl Should Know–

  • Six of the first ten missionary biographies on this page are from her book-http://www.wholesomewords.org/children/misscc.html.
  • Find the complete text of the book here-https://archive.org/stream/fiftymissionaryh00john#page/n5/mode/2up.

YouTube-

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About William E. Richardson

I'm married to a wonderful woman named Deb. We're the parents of a son and daughter who bring great joy to our lives. I currently pastor the Assembly of God church in Afton, Iowa.
This entry was posted in Hymn writer. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to HYMN WRITERS ALFRED ACKLEY and JULIA JOHNSTON

  1. Ed Schlak says:

    I really appreciate the resource footnotes in your articles!

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