Behind the Hymn: I Will Sing the Wondrous Story


I Will Sing the Wondrous Story was written by Francis H. Rowley in 1886.

Francis Harold Rowley

Francis Harold Rowley was born in Hilton, New York on July 25, 1854. His father was a doctor.

After graduating from Rochester University, Rowley attended Seminary and was ordained to the ministry in 1878.

Rowley wrote, “I was minister of the First Baptist Church of North Adams, Massachusetts, in 1886…The church and community were experiencing a period of unusual interest in religious matters, and I was assisted by a remarkable young singer by the name of Peter Bilhorn. One night after the close of the service he said, ‘Why don’t you write a hymn for me to set to music?’ During the night these verses came to me. The original poem began, ‘Can’t you sing the wondrous story?’ but when the song was first published by Sankey in 1887 the phrase was changed to “I will sing …”

Peter Bilhorn was born in 1861 Illinois, shortly after his father was killed in the Civil War. He was converted to Christianity by D.L. Moody’s teachings. He reportedly wrote over 2,000 Gospel songs and worked for a while with evangelist Billy Sunday and performed for

Peter Bilhorn

Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. He also invented a folding pump organ used at revivals in the late 19th Century, and founded the Bilhorn Folding Organ Company in Chicago, Illinois.

He died in Los Angeles on December 13, 1936.

On a trip to Brooklyn, New York, music publisher George Coles Stebbins asked Peter Bilhorn if he had any songs he had written and he showed him what we know as I Will Sing the Wondrous Story.

Stebbins assisted in harmonizing the song and took him to music publisher Ira Sankey, who was impressed with the song.

The two men presented it as a gift to Sankey. The song was published as “I Will Sing the Wonderous Story” along with other changes that had not been approved.

Ira Sankey

Sankey first published the song in his 1887 edition of Sacred Songs and Solos.

Years later Rowley wrote of this song, “As I was going down a London street one night about eleven o’clock, I discovered ahead of me a group of Salvation Army people holding a service, and as I came nearer to them it occurred to me that the hymn they were singing was familiar. Then it dawned upon me that it was the one that I had written.”

Francis Rowley died on February 14, 1952 at Boston, Massachusetts.

Ira D. Sankey is credited as the composer in the majority of hymnals.




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