Behind the Song Sunday: Just A Closer Walk with Thee
The hymn is considered to be one of the most requested songs at funerals.
The song gained national popularity in the 1930s, when African American churches sung it at musical conventions. By the 1940s, the hymn was featured at all night gospel singing rallies. The first known recording was made on October 8, 1941 by the Selah Jubilee Singers.
The widely held belief is that song predates the Civil War. Some personal African American histories recall “slaves singing as they worked in the fields a song about walking by the Lord’s side.”
The title and lyrics of the song allude to the Biblical passage from 2 Corinthians 5:7 which states, “We walk by faith, not by sight.
In 1885, “Closer Walk with Thee“, which had a similar chorus, was published. Some music historians refer to this song as a folk song. The lyrics to “Closer Walk with Thee” was tributed to Martha J. Lankton and music by William Kirkpatrick. The song was passed down from generation to generation until it found a national audience in the 1930s.
In 1940, Kenneth Morris arranged and published the well-known version for the first time. He heard a performance in Kansas City by gospel musicians, Robert Anderson and R. L. Knowles. Mr. Morris arranged the music and added some lyrics for the version we know today. Bernice Johnson Reagan states in her book, that Mr. Morris researched the song and determined it had not been published and had his version printed for the first time.
Another version of how Mr. Morris came to hear of the song can be found in Horace Clarence Boyer book How Sweet the Sound. He states “While traveling between Kansas City and Chicago in 1940, songwriter Kenneth Morris got off the train to stretch his legs. While standing on the platform, he overheard a porter singing some of the words to “Just a Closer Walk with Thee“. Not thinking much about it, Morris boarded the train and went on his way. The words and melody of the song kept repeating in his head and he knew he had to learn the rest of it. At the next stop, Morris got off the train and took the next train back to the previous stop. There he managed to find the porter and Morris persuaded him to sing the song while he copied down the words. Morris soon added to the lyrics and published it in 1940.”
In 1944, the hymn was presented at the Baptist National Convention. Morris said at the time, “he arranged it from an old spiritual. It was a plantation song,” he explains, “and I heard it and like it so I made an arrangement of it.”
The hymn has been translated into numerous languages and recorded hundreds of times by numerous artists over the years. Elvis Presley set sales records in 1956 with the hymn.
The song gives hope for the weak in the strength of Jesus, when asking him to walk closely through this trial.
What gives you strength through trials?