Behind the Hymn: Great is Thy Faithfulness
God wants to show us His faithfulness, but sometimes we have to surrender all before He can prove that He is faithful to us.
Great is Thy Faithfulness was written by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm as a “testament to God’s faithfulness through his very ordinary life.”
Chisholm was born in 1866 in a log cabin in Franklin, Kentucky to James Washington and Lucy Jane Mequire Chisholm. He received his education in a rural schoolhouse in the area, but they were dirt poor and he never got past an elementary school education. However, by the age of sixteen he was a teacher.
Five years later, at the age of twenty-one, he was the associate editor of his hometown weekly newspaper, The Franklin Advocate.
In 1893, Henry Clay Morrison, the founder of Asbury College and Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, held a revival meeting in Franklin. Chisholm attended and accepted Jesus Christ into his heart and life.
Later, at Morrison’s invitation, Chisholm moved to Louisville, Kentucky and became an editor for the Pentecostal Herald.
In 1903, he became an ordained Methodist Minister. Sometime around 1903, he also married Katherine Hambright Vandevere.
Due to ill health, Chisholm was only able to serve one year in the ministry. After leaving his ministry in Scottsville, Kentucky he and his wife relocated to Winona Lake, Indiana for the open air. After a time in Indiana, he then moved to Vineland, New Jersey where he sold insurance. He suffered from health issues the rest of his life and had periods of time when he was confined to bed and unable to work.
Thomas was good friends with William Runyan and often exchanged the poems he’d written with the Moody Bible Institute musician. Runyan was so moved by the poem Chisholm sent one day that he decided to compose a melody to go with the lyrics.
This poem was Great is Thy Faithfulness. Chisholm said of the poem, “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 many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
Runyan wrote of the hymn: “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 the subsequent history of its use indicates that God answered prayer. It was written in Baldwin, Kansas, in 1923, and was first published in my private song pamphlets.”
The song went unnoticed for a number of years until “it was discovered by a Moody Bible Institute professor who loved it so much and requested it sung so often at chapel services, that the song became the unofficial theme song of the college.”
In 1945, George Beverly Shea began to sing the song at the Billy Graham Crusades, and it gained exposure and popularity.
In 1953, Chisholm retired to the Methodist Retirement Community in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Katherine, his wife, died the following year.
Even through retirement, he continued to write poems and hymns, as he had throughout his life. In total he wrote over 1200 poems and hymns, including Living for Jesus, He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions, Trust in the Lord with All Your Heart and O! To Be Like Thee. His writings often appeared in religious periodicals such as the Sunday School Times, Moody Monthly, and Alliance Weekly.
Thomas Chisholm died in 1960 at the age of 93.
Chisholm, a lifelong Methodist, had the song appear in numerous hymnals and song books. However, it was not included in the Methodist hymnal until the 1989 hymnal was released.
In 2003, a Historical Roadside Marker was erected near his boyhood home in Simpson County, Kentucky.
We can only imagine how God used one of Chisholm’s favorite scriptures, Lamentations 3:22-23, to inspire this hymn. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness.”