Story Behind the Hymn
Students at Moody Bible Institute sang The Faithfulness song on Founder’s Week at Moody Bible Institute the first week of February in 1956. Three weeks earlier, a national tragedy in Ecuador sidetracked the plans for Moody’s Jubilee Anniversary. The murder of five American missionaries hit close to home; all five were Wheaton College graduates and well known to the Moody students. In the days following the news, more than a few chapel services ended with a spontaneous institutional lament—“Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”
“Just an old shoe.” That’s how Thomas Chisholm, born in a Kentucky log cabin in 1866, often described himself. Though plagued with poor health throughout his life and no more than a grade-school education, he became a teacher at 16 and authored 1200 hymns in his 93 years on earth.
He wrote this hymn in the middle of a hymnal war in 1923. At the time of its writing, some of the most famous revivalists had soared to popularity with songbooks full of shallow lyrics. The gospel had disappeared from gospel songs. Chisholm wanted something different, a substantive song that would speak to his own despair—a testimony of the hope he had found in Lamentations 3:19-24, “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed because His compassions fail not.”
Shortly after writing the hymn, he sent it to William Runyan at a hymnal publishing company. Runyan, too, was unhappy with the lyrics of the day. In his own words, “New gospel songs with true depth and meaning—songs that stick to the spiritual ribs—are one of the most apparent needs in the world today.” Runyan was also associated with the Moody Bible Institute. After reading Chisholm’s hymn, Runyan recalls that “This particular poem held such an appeal that I prayed most earnestly that my tune might carry over its message in a worthy way.” And it did.
This hymn had become a favorite and the unofficial college hymn, known by Runyan and those at Moody Bible Institute as “The Faithfulness Song.” Billy Graham introduced it during the Great Britain Crusades in 1954 and again during his United States crusades.
Chisholm would introduce it with his personal testimony,
“My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years, which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
Chisholm’s friends understood that
“His aim in writing is to magnify the Word, incorporating as much Scripture, either literally or in paraphrase, as possible, and to avoid any flippant or sentimental themes, choosing subjects from the inexhaustible storehouse of the Bible.” (Charles Gabriel, Moody Bible Institute).
Runyan took “The Faithfulness Song” to a publisher who bought three of Runyan’s tunes for $10 each but rejected this one, stating that it wasn’t worth the price. Today, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is one of England’s most popular and America’s best-loved hymns.