“Eventually we must have our own strong and deeply placed foundation, or we will be unable to withstand the storms of life, which will come…How, you may ask, can we most effectively gain and maintain the foundation needed to survive spiritually in the world in which we live?…First, prayer…Second, study the scriptures and “meditate therein day and night”…and Third, be involved in the Lord’s service…”
– Thomas S. Monson, “How Firm a Foundation,” Ensign, Nov 2006
The hymn “How Firm A Foundation” has been a popular favorite among Christians ever since it first appeared, in 1787. It was brought to America by Dr. John Rippon, a Baptist minister from London. When it appeared in Rippon’s collection ‘A Selection of Hymns,’ (1790) the poem’s author was signed simply as “K” followed by a dash. There has been speculation this stands for composers “Keene”, “Keith” or “Kirkham” . All efforts to definitively identify the mysterious “K”, have been fruitless; and the mystery remains to this day.
Listen: “How Firm A Foundation” – Bobby Fisher, guitar (traditional melody)
However, there’s no mystery about the message of this author’s words. Whoever he was, he had a thorough knowledge of practical Christianity and of what is needed to encourage troubled saints in their hour of affliction. A powerful feature of the text is that the last five verses are written as if they are being spoken by Jesus himself to His faithful followers; a poetic summary of the reassurance one finds throughout scripture. The final declaration reassures repeatedly that Jesus will “never, no never, no never forsake” us.
“How Firm A Foundation”, is said to have been a particular favorite of President Andrew Jackson.
After he had left aside the burdens of the Presidency, and retired to his famous home, ‘ The Hermitage,’ visitors still came in their throngs, from near and far, to catch a glimpse of the great man.
The story is told that once, when the crowds were thus assembled, General Jackson called out to a local minister: ‘”There is a beautiful hymn on the subject of the exceeding great and precious promises of God to His people. It was a favourite with my dear wife until the day of her death. It commences thus: ‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord!’ I wish you would sing now.” And so, to please and give comfort to an aging former president, the whole assembly sang the entire hymn.
This hymn was sung at the funerals of American presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. In addition, it was the favorite of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and was sung at his funeral.
In 1901 a story was related in “The Sunday-School Times” (12.7.1901) by Lieutenant-Colonel Curtis Guild, Jr., late inspecter-General of the Seventh Army Corps. This experience took place in Cuba during the Spanish-American War:
“On Christmas eve of 1898 I sat before my tent in the balmy tropical night [near Havana] chatting with a fellow-officer of Christmas and home. Suddenly from the camp of the Forty-ninth Iowa rang a sentinel’s call, “Number ten; twelve o’clock, and all’s well!” It was Christmas morning. Scarcely had the cry of the sentinel died away, when from the bandsmen’s tents of that same regiment there rose the music of an old, familiar hymn, and one clear baritone voice led the chorus that quickly ran along those moonlit fields: ‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord!’ Another voice joined in, and another, and another, and in a moment the whole regiment was singing, and then the Sixth Missouri joined in, with the Fourth Virginia, and all the rest, till there , on the long ridges above the great city whence Spanish tyranny once went forth to enslave the New World, a whole American army corps was singing –
“Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed;
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.”
“Protestant and Catholic, North and South were singing together on Christmas day in the morning – now that’s an American army!”
– As retold in Studies of Familiar Hymns by Louis F. Benson, D.D.
One of the early tunes paired with this text was the familiar “O Come All Ye Faithful”. It is easy to imagine these American soldiers were using that particular melody to usher in their Christmas morning. The traditional tune used most often today is entitled “My Jesus, I Love Thee” (heard in the first audio clip of this post). An alternate melody is the tune name “Fidelity” attributed to J. Ellis (ca. 1889), which is found in the hymnals of the Salvation Army and also the Latter-day Saints. This hymn has been part of Latter-day Saint tradition since Emma Smith’s very first hymnal of 1835. (K. Davidson)
Listen: Mormon Tabernacle Choir (1960)
(** Trivia: In the last line of the first verse this recording includes the older awkward text “you who unto Jesus…”. In the 1985 LDS hymnal this was modified to the words “who unto the Savior”)
Indeed, this is a hymn which crosses all denomination borders. It’s vigor and conviction are irresistible to sing. Like its message, it has stood the test of time. It brings great comfort in times of sorrow and suffering, and encouragement at all times and seasons to remain steadfast, immovable and firm in the faith!
Mack Wilberg’s arrangement (2006)
“How Firm A Foundation” – Text for all seven verses (by “K-“)
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
In every condition, In Sickness, in Health
In povertys veil, or abounding in wealth;
At home or abroad, on the Land or the Sea
As thy days may demand, So thy succor shall be
Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
E’en down to old age, All my people shall prove
My soverign, Eternal, Unchangeable Love;
And when hoary hairs, shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be bourne.
The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I can not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!