I’ve made my fondness for old hymns known before. I grew up with them, and even today an old hymn will get stuck in my head for days at a time.
Such is the case with “Come, Thou Fount,” one of the hymns that was an evergreen favorite in my childhood church, and one of those that has maintained a surprising popularity among contemporary pop Christian groups and singers, although as usual they can’t keep from tweaking it to make it more “modern,” adding choruses or smoothing out the lyrics to suit today’s sensibilities.
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” to give its full title, was written in the mid-1700s by a 22-year-old English pastor and hymnodist named Robert Robinson. Like most hymns of the era, it came unattached to a particular tune. The tune we associate it with the most is an American tune of somewhat obscure origin called “Nettleton,” named after the Connecticut evangelist and composer Asahel Nettleton, who may or may not have written it. The tune has a kind of thumping, straightforward tread that is one reason it sticks in the mind so easily: de de BUMP BUMP, de de BUMP BUMP, and so forth.
But what draws me to “Come, Thou Fount” are its lyrics. They’re kind of a mishmash, really, but in such interesting ways. Take the first lines. “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy praise. Streams of mercy never ceasing call for songs of loudest praise.” This gives us a hint of what we’re in for. God is a fountain, and also a kind of cosmic piano tuner. The two images are intermingled through the verse. One might say Robinson is mixing his metaphors here, or that this tumbled mix is just what he’s aiming for, in the sense that God is too big to be contained in a single metaphorical framework.
The second verse relies on what to most people today is a very obscure Biblical reference: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, here by Thy great help I’ve come.” But believers in Robinson’s time would have recognized the reference as coming from 1 Samuel, in a verse in which Samuel erects a monument stone at the site of a victory over the Philistines. Samuel calls it “Stone of Help,” or Eben-Ezer in the English transliteration of the Hebrew, and the word came to signify a place of victory by divine intervention. The legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta takes its name from this passage, as do thousands of other “Ebenezer” churches around the country. So the hymn is a victory paean.
But no, it’s not, for a couple of verses later come an amazing set of lines. “O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.” The grace of God is phrased in terms of debt and imprisonment, which in 18th-century England would have been painfully familiar. For Robinson, who was disinherited at age five with ten shillings and sixpence, debt and imprisonment would have been a present concern. And then the desperate plea: “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for Thy courts above.” It’s easy to imagine the 22-year-old writer, engaged in his own struggles, pouring out this cry. The whole hymn is a tumbling-out of varied figures of speech, tones, and images, following on each other and sometimes weaving together. No wonder people have felt the urge to clean it up a bit for the audiences of their day!
But I like the tangled, almost synesthetic quality of “Come, Thou Fount.” As the tune goes marching along in steady pace, the lyrics are bouncing all over the place. It’s a mixed-up flow of thoughts for mixed-up minds, and I like it just like that.