Hymn History: Near to the Heart of God September 21, 2022

Near to the Heart of God

The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth.” – Psalm 145:18

We are thrilled to share a series of brief accounts of how some of the great hymns of our faith were written. Each synopsis has been compiled through the research of Jerry Vargo and is shared by permission. It is our hope that these stories will be a help and encouragement to your Christian walk. This week we read the heartrending story behind the sweet hymn, “Near to the Heart of God.”

This is a tragic story. However, a wonderful song was born during this time of tremendous human suffering and sadness. Cleland McAfee found that unexpected problems or crises may come into our lives. Often, we cannot escape the pressures and shadows that accompany those problems. However, these can be faced with spiritual strength, which God faithfully provides. This is the message expressed in this song.

Cleland Boyd McAfee was born in Missouri, September 25, 1866. He graduated from Park College in Parkville, Missouri. Cleland’s father had founded Park College in 1875. Cleland furthered his studies at Union Theological Seminary, New York. After his studies in New York, he returned to Park College to pastor the campus church as well as direct its choir.

In 1901, Cleland answered a call to serve the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Later he became the pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian church in Brooklyn, New York from 1912 to 1930. Cleland was also professor of systematic theology at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago.

In 1903, while Cleland was pastoring in Chicago, tragedy struck his family. His brother Howard’s two infant daughters died from diphtheria within 24 hours of each other. It was natural that the family would turn to Cleland, the pastor, for consolation.

The situation was made even more difficult by the fact that his brother’s house had to be quarantined to prevent the spread of terrifying disease. People were unable to go inside to express their condolences, and the parents were not permitted to leave the house to attend the double funeral service for the two girls.

Cleland sat up very late, praying and pondering what he could say in a sermon the following Sunday and what kind of music he could compose to bring comfort to his family and the congregation. The wonderful hymn presented in this story was the outcome of his meditation.

Cleland’s daughter described how this hymn was written:

“The family was stricken with grief. My father often told us how he sat long and late thinking of what could be said in word and song on the coming Sunday…. So he wrote the little song Near to the Heart of God. The choir learned it at the regular Saturday night rehearsal, and afterward they went to Howard McAfee’s home and sang it as they stood under the sky outside the darkened, quarantined house. It was sung again on Sunday morning at [Cleland’s] church.”

​​1. There is a place of quiet rest
Near to the heart of God,
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.

Refrain: O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before Thee
Near to the heart of God.

2. There is a place of comfort sweet
Near to the heart of God,
A place where we our Savior meet,
Near to the heart of God. (Refrain)

3. There is a place of full release
Near to the heart of God,
A place where all is joy and peace,
Near to the heart of God. (Refrain)

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2 Comments

  1. Nancy Marlow on September 22, 2022 at 5:27 PM

    I love this hymn and remember singing it in church as a little girl. I’m 80 now and still remember the words!

    Thanks for sharing these hymn stories. Makes the words even more powerful when you know how it came to be written.

    • scottpauley on October 2, 2022 at 7:14 PM

      God bless you for your faithfulness!

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