Blessed Assurance

Praise for the Lord #71

Words: Fanny J. Crosby, 1873
Music: Phoebe Palmer Knapp, 1873

Fanny Crosby told slightly different stories of the origin of this hymn. Perhaps better known is her account from Memories of Eighty Years,
In a successful song words and music must harmonize, not only in number of syllables, but in subject matter and especially accent. In nine cases out of ten the success of a hymn depends directly upon these qualities. Thus, melodies tell their own tale, and it is the purpose of the poet to interpret this musical story into language. Not infrequently a composer asks, “What does that melody say to you?” And if it says nothing to you the probability is that your words will not agree with the music when an attempt is made to join them. “Blessed Assurance” was written to a melody composed by my friend, Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp; she played it over once or twice on the piano and then asked me what it said to me. I replied,

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His spirit, washed in His blood:
This is my story, this is my song,
Praising my Saviour all the day long.”

The hymn thus written seemed to express the experience of both Mrs. Knapp and myself.(p.168)
But in another account she tells it somewhat less dramatically, sounding as though the text was the product of a more typical process of composition, not so extemporaneous as the preceding account implies:
Sometimes a tune is furnished me for which to write the words. “Blessed Assurance” was made in this manner. My dear friend, Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp, so well known as a writer and singer of most exquisite music, and as an aid and inspiration to all who know her, had composed the tune, and it seemed to me one of the sweetest I had heard for a long time. She asked me to write a hymn for it, and I felt, while bringing the words and tones together, that the air and the hymn were intended for each other. In the many hundred times that I have heard it sung, this opinion has been more and more confirmed.(Life Story, p.145-6)
I certainly concur with her opinion! It is hard to imagine a better setting for the text, and certainly the tune and harmony do as much to carry the hymn as do the words. The effects of writing the lyrics after hearing the tune seem obvious enough; consisting as it does of short exclamatory outbursts in an unusual meter, it is hard to imagine writing this text as poetry beforehand. This is not meant as a criticism, but the text of “Blessed assurance,” dear as it is to millions of Christian hearts, is not the pinnacle of English poetry. I think you could arrange the rhymed couplets of the three stanzas and chorus in any order, and it would do no violence to the overall sense of the text, unlike many hymns in which the omission of a single phrase would break up the development of the thought.

But there is nothing wrong with it in this case, and there is a long precedent behind it. The apostle Paul often burst out in praise in the middle of a thought, even in the middle of a sentence. In 1 Timothy 1:17 he exclaims, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever, Amen,” using the same technique of piling up every good and gracious thing he can think of to say to express his thanks for God’s “unspeakable gift.”(2 Cor. 9:15) To my ear, Crosby’s text is much the same, and what it lacks in structure and poetic depth is more than compensated for by a childlike earnestness which we dare not undervalue.

Stanza 1:
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God;
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

Crosby may have had Hebrews 10:22 in mind, “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.” The last line of the stanza expands on the source of assurance, likely referencing John 3:5 and Jesus’s statement to Nicodemus that we must be born again “of the water and of the Spirit.” Having that new birth through baptism into Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, we are thus “sealed with the Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of His glory.”(Ephesians 1:13-14) Whether these verses were in Crosby’s mind, or simply flowed from her as a benefit of a lifetime of devotion to Bible study, the song is certainly Scriptural!

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And because of this reality–being washed in the blood of Christ, reborn through the Spirit, “bought with a price”(1 Corinthians 7:23) out of slavery to sin, to become heirs of God’s rich inheritance He has planned for us–we have a “full assurance.” It is no wishful thinking; our faith stands upon the promises of God, and “we may have confidence, and not be ashamed before Him at his coming.”(1 John 2:28) We have “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”(Hebrews 11:1) This is not a “hope” in the sense that I “hope” my car will start in the morning, or I “hope” my job will continue. This is a hope for the future based on a present assurance, founded on immutable truths.

Looking at the previous examples, I am not sure my car will start, because I know that the law of entropy is against me and eventually it will break down. I am not sure that I will always have a job, because it depends to an extent upon the actions of others, and an even greater extent upon the economy as a whole and other factors beyond anyone’s control. But when it comes to the salvation of my soul, I can be sure of what God said, and of what Jesus did. There is a peace and contentment in this that is truly a “foretaste” of heaven.

This is my story, this is my song:
Praising my Savior all the day long.

If someone wrote a song or story about my life, what would it say? If I really assess my existence, looking at what I am spending my life doing, and asking what is most important to me, what will I learn? It is hard to be honest with myself, but I fear that an honest answer would be that, most days, I am just trying to fulfill those obligations that I feel are my duty, and otherwise to get through life with a minimum of conflict and discomfort. It’s not such a terrible goal–it’s at least a step up from a life of wild hedonism, or of striving for money and power–but it’s so much less than God called us to! Miss Crosby captures that thought in this blissful couplet: the story of my life, the song that I sing as I spend my days on this earth, should be praise for my Savior.

Charles Wesley addressed the thought in the opening line (and title) of this hymn: “I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath.” As long as we have life and breath on this earth, we should praise our Savior for His redeeming love for us. “Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name.(Hebrews 13:15) And though our praises should be in song and in speech, they should also arise from our actions. Isaac Watts captured this idea in the final stanza of “My Shepherd will supply my need”(PFTL#428), in the line, “…and all my work be praise.” Paul told the Christians at Philippi, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”(Phil. 1:9-11) Even in trials (or perhaps especially in trials) we give praise to God: “…you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith–more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire–may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”(1 Peter 1:6b-7)

A running joke in my household is that, although it seems everyone has a reality TV show now, and that virtually no talent or distinction is necessary for the job, they will never make a reality show of my life because no one would watch it–not even me. Every day has its dull routine, to be sure; but God help me to remember that every day, and every interaction with another human being, is an opportunity to offer praise to my Savior, by word, deed, or both. Can you smile and hold the door open for someone? Every day can be an adventure!

Stanza 2:
Perfect submission, perfect delight;
Visions of rapture now burst on my sight!
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love.


“Submissive” is simply not how most people want to be described. “Stand up for yourself!” “Get what is coming to you!” “Don’t tread on me!” “You deserve more!” are the watchwords of the world, especially, I am afraid, of American society today. The New Testament paints a different picture. “Submit yourselves therefore to God.”(James 4:7) “Be submissive to rulers and authorities.”(Titus 3:1) “Obey your [spiritual] leaders and submit to them.”(Hebrews 13:17) “The church submits to Christ.”(Ephesians 5:24) A father is to “keep his children submissive.”(1 Timothy 3:4) “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”(Ephesians 5:22) And before you throw those rotten tomatoes at me, we are ALL called to account in the preceding verse, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”(Ephesians 5:21)

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“Submission” literally means “to place under,” both in our English word (by way of Latin) and in the original Greek of these passages. It carries with it something of the sense of a military ordering, in which soldiers take their places according to rank.(BlueLetterBible) Now, anyone who has been around military folks knows that a sergeant is subordinate to a lieutenant in rank and authority, but that it hardly means the sergeant is inferior! An inexperienced young lieutenant will do well to watch and listen to the veteran sergeant under his or her command; but the sergeant will nonetheless show submission to the lieutenant’s rank. Why? Because they both answer to a higher authority–their commander-in-chief, their oaths of service, and the discipline needed for the smooth functioning of their group as a whole. “Submission” does not mean a loss of individuality, but is a deliberate placing of that individuality under the discipline of a higher authority. As C.S. Lewis tried to get across in The Screwtape Letters, becoming one with God does not mean we lose our personalities; if anything, we become more truly “ourselves,” as we were meant to be, under His guidance.

Stanza 3:
Perfect submission, all is at rest;
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.


Today I was privileged to sing for the memorial service of John Darrell Boren, a great Christian man whom I knew only a couple of years out of his very long life. Of course there were tears, because he was a man who left a real impression on so many lives, and we are sorry to see him gone from this life; but more noticeable than anything else was the undercurrent of joy and confidence that permeated the event. Even the most worldly person could be inspired by this man who lived a life to the fullest degree; but his fellow Christians know why he lived such a life. He was standing on that “blessed assurance.” He tried his best to be “filled with His goodness,” and let that goodness overflow into the lives of many other people.

We “watch and wait” for the fulfillment of that assured hope, but we are not waiting with folded hands. Paul told the younger preacher Titus that we are instead “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”(Titus 2:12b-13) It is about living a life–for “it is the Spirit who gives life”(John 6:63)–and living that life to the fullest, with a rock of assurance under our feet, and an eye toward a glorious future.


About the music:

Phoebe Palmer Knapp

One of the distinguishing features of the hymn tradition in the 19th century was the increasing impact of women. In the gospel song genre, no lyric writer is more immediately recognized than Fanny J. Crosby, and in the traditional hymn genre there were numerous successful female hymnists, such as Frances Havergal (“Lord, speak to me,” “Take my life, and let it be”) and the notable translator of Lutheran chorales, Catherine Winkworth (“Now thank we all our God”). Tune writing and arrangement, however, was an area in which the impact of women was still limited. The most obvious reason for this gap is that although a lady’s education of that era typically involved composition, which included studying and writing poetry, her study of music was usually limited to performance, and did not include music theory beyond the basics necessary for reading music.

An accompanying factor, of course, was the lack of opportunity to study music theory and composition; whereas today nearly anyone with access to a community college can take a year’s coursework in music theory, during the 19th century this was considered more the province of the professional musician and the conservatory. Additionally, despite the rise of several truly first-rate women composers in this era, such as Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, and the American Amy Beach, there was a social expectation–stronger in the more conservative United States–that a married woman should not pursue a public career. This was part and parcel of a mindset that caused Phoebe Palmer Knapp to publish under the name “Mrs. Joseph F. Knapp,” as though he had anything to do with the composition!

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Joseph nonetheless seems to have supported her efforts, and he certainly knew what he was getting into when he married her–her mother, Phoebe Palmer, was a prominent evangelist and writer in the Holiness wing of Methodism, and was a significant hymnwriter herself. (“Cleansing wave” was her best known work; distinguishing the works of a mother and daughter with the same names is a real headache!)(“Palmer,” Cyberhymnal) When Knapp (a businessman who was later the president of Metropolitan Life Insurance) married the 16-year-old Phoebe, he involved his new bride in his volunteer work as superintendent of the Sunday School department of the South 2nd St. Methodist Church in New York City.(“Knapp,” Cyberhymnal; “Knapp,” American Women)

A search of shows that Phoebe Knapp edited at least two books of Sunday School songs: Notes of joy: for the Sabbath school, the social meeting and the hour of prayer (New York: Palmer, 1869), and Bible School Songs (New York: Nelson & Philips, 1873) with John Heyl Vincent. She also wrote an extended sacred art song, “Open the gates of the temple,” with text by Fanny Crosby, that was republished in several arrangements. It is an ambitious work, with a slow opening recitative, two stanzas describing the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, then concluding in a slower, more contemplative section in a contrasting meter. Interestingly, the final section quite deliberately quotes the aria “I know that my Redeemer lives” from Handel’s Messiah. The cover of the sheet music lists a dozen or so other songs by Phoebe Knapp, including at least one that must be secular, “Watching for Pa.”

Knapp’s ability as a composer is hard to judge, because relatively few of her hymns are available, and the one large collection of her work, Notes of joy, was children’s music and may not reflect the full range of her ability. Certainly the art song “Open the gates” reveals a broader ability than can be exercised within the confines of practical church music for congregational singing. “Blessed assurance” has a finely crafted form–in fact, when I was teaching music theory at Lipscomb University, I would often use the stanza section of this hymn as an easy-to-grasp illustration of a “double period” (a group of four phrases in which the 2nd phrase concludes in a manner that makes it a clear midpoint, having moved away from the tonic harmony, with the 4th phrase as the answering resolution of the harmonic tension.) The refrain has the same form, with the 2nd phrase building tension into the 3rd phrase, which brings about the resolution. The innate logic of such structures is seen in the fact that many singers, totally unaware of theoretical underpinnings, feel the triumphant climax of this resolution and slow it down as though to savor the moment: “This… is… my… story,” etc. Another of Knapp’s hymn tunes is “When my love to Christ grows weak”(PFTL#752), a gem of beautiful, functional simplicity.

(WARNING: MUSIC THEORY CONTENT) Interestingly, part of Knapp’s most famous hymn tune has been given a de facto rewrite by popular usage. Look carefully at the last four notes of the stanza and the refrain (“all the day long”), and you will see they are written D-E-C#-D, or “DO-RE-TI-DO.” But listen carefully to people singing this song, and you may hear instead “TI-DO-RE-DO,” or C#-D-E-D. My best guess is that singers feel that the harmony under those three notes before the final chord should be the dominant chord of the key, A-C#-E. This is probably due to the fact that they are coming down from G and E in the measure before (“Sa-vior” in the refrain), and a C# on the next note would make an arpeggio of the A-C#-E-G dominant 7th chord. This chord choice also fits nicely following the G chords (subdominant harmony in the key) under those two preceding notes.

What Knapp actually wrote is a tonic six-four chord on “all” (D-F#-A), then followed by the expected dominant harmony. Look at the bass line throughout the song, and you can see that the harmony has been changing rather slowly, perhaps two chords to a measure; the sudden chord change on the last three eighth notes before the final note just doesn’t quite “sell,” and many singers haven’t bought it. As a general rule, of course, I’m in favor of singing what is written; but when generations of singers have tweaked a melody in a certain way, there is often a reason!

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