At last October’s Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival held in Alpena, Michigan, I had the privilege of watching a performance by the Blue Water Ramblers in which they sang one of my favorite songs, Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, which is also known as Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy.
Coincidently, this old hymn, once extremely popular in churches across America, is sung every year at the island community church service held at Little River Lighthouse in Cutler, Maine and it is also the unofficial official hymn of a church that I attend.
Unfortunately, the hymn has been dropped from many church hymnals by publishers who apparently have no idea of the importance of the words or by those in the decision making positions of the publishers that wish to change the values of yesteryear to what they think our values and music should be today.
The words to the old song were a direct result of a sermon given by Rev. Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) who was one of the greatest evangelists of the nineteenth century. Moody told a story of a ship nearing the Lake Erie harbor at Cleveland, Ohio on a stormy night when the waves were high.
Seeing only the light from one lighthouse, the ship’s captain asked the pilot, “Are you sure this is Cleveland?” “Quite sure,” replied the pilot. “But,” said the captain, “Where are the lower lights, the lights along the shore?” The pilot replied calmly, “They’ve gone out sir.” He assured the captain that they could make the harbor and he turned the ship’s wheel. But in the darkness they missed the channel and crashed upon the bar, resulting in the deaths of many of the ship’s crew and passengers. With this illustration Moody concluded his sermon by saying, “The Master will take care of the Great Lighthouse, but it is up to us to keep the Lower Lights burning.”
Philip P. Bliss, one of the great hymn writers of all time, who had been directing the music at the service, listened intently to Moody’s sermon. Almost immediately after the service he penned the words and the music to a hymn that he titled Let the Lower Lights Be Burning. The hymn was first published in 1871 and eventually the song gained in popularity, even at inland churches where the people knew nothing about lighthouses. And it was soon known by millions of Americans.
In modern times, popular recording artists such as Tennessee Ernie Ford and even Johnny Cash recorded the hymn. But other than some of the gospel singers of today who occasionally perform the song, it is highly unlikely that the hymn will have a revival in churches, which will sadly deprive the younger generation of the words and meaning behind them.
However, perhaps, just perhaps, groups like the Blue Water Ramblers will help keep this great song alive to the lighthouse community and maritime enthusiasts and hopefully it will help keep a light, somewhere, brightly burning.
The Blue Water Ramblers, CD, Coming Home, which includes Let the Lower Lights Be Burning, and other songs such as Five Kinds of Snow and Keweenaw Light, can be ordered for $15.00, plus $2.00 postage from Banjo Jim Foerch, 3010 Bewell, Lowell, MI 49331.
Let the Lower Lights Be Burning
Lyrics By Philip Bliss
Brightly beams our Father’s mercy,
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.
Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor struggling, fainting seaman
You may rescue, you may save.
Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.
Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost.
This story appeared in the
December 2010 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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