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FRANCIS HAROLD ROWLEY (JULY 15, 1854-FEBRUARY 14, 1952)
Northern Baptist Minister, Humanitarian, and Hymn Writer
The Reverend Francis Harold Rowley entered the world at Hilton, New York, in 1854. He graduated from Rochester University (1875) and Theological Seminary (1878) then became a minister in the American Baptist Missionary Union. (Aside: The ABMU renamed itself the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907. The NBC became the American Baptist Convention in 1950. And the ABC became the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. in 1972. The “Northern”/American Baptists have long been more progressive on average than their Southern Baptist counterparts. An old joke oversimplifies the distinction: A Northern Baptist says that there isn’t a Hell, but a Southern Baptist says, “The Hell there isn’t.”) Rowley served churches at the following places:
- Titusville, Pennsylvania (1879-1884);
- North Adams, Massachusetts (1884-1892);
- Oak Park, Illinois (1892-1896);
- Fall River, Massachusetts (1896-1900); and
- Boston, Massachusetts (1900-1910).
Rowley retired from parish ministry and First Baptist Church, Boston, in 1910, and devoted the rest of his life to philanthropic work. He served as President (1910-1945) then Chairman of the Board (1945-1952) of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. He also wrote The Humane Ideal and The Horses of Homer. And Rowley worked on children’s health care. I have concluded that the link between good health care for children and the prevention of cruelty to animals is the relative vulnerability and powerlessness of both populations. So Rowley’s compassion reached out to both of them, as it should have done.
I am familiar with one aspect of Rowley’s legacy, a hymn, “I Will Tell the Wondrous Story.” Any hymn, if set to a bad tune and/or sung badly, can prove irritating to one with good taste. (I have good taste.) Unfortunately for me, I grew up in rural congregations where bad singing was rife. People sang hymns too quickly and with bad diction and nasal vowels. It was a joyful noise, with the accent on “noise.” But YouTube searches today have revealed more than one setting of the hymn. Some of the arrangements even sound joyful and not noisy. The words, however, are a separate matter from the music. Rowley composed the text in 1886, while pastor of First Baptist Church, North Adams, Massachusetts.
1. I will sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
How he left His home in glory
For the cross of Calvary.
Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
Sing it with the saints in glory,
Gathered by the crystal sea.
2. I was lost, but Jesus found me,
Found the sheep that went astray,
Threw his loving arms around me,
Drew me back into His way.
3. I was bruised, but Jesus healed me;
Faint was I from many a fall;
Sight was gone, and fears possessed me,
But He freed me from them all.
4. Days of darkness still come o’er me,
Sorrow’s paths I often tread,
But the Saviour still is with me;
By His hand I’m safely led.
There is another part of the Rowley legacy. The School of Humanities at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., bears his name. That is appropriate.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
DECEMBER 15, 2012 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF WILLIAM PROXMIRE, UNITED STATES SENATOR
O God, your Son came among us to serve and not to be served, and to give his life for the life of the world.
Lead us by his love to serve all those to whom the world offers no comfort and little help.
Through us give hope to the hopeless,
love to the unloved,
peace to the troubled,
and rest to the weary,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60
Revised on December 2, 2016