This hymn was conceived by Thomas Olivers (1725-1799), born at Tregynon, Montgomeryshire, Wales. Orphaned at age four, he lived with various family members until finally apprenticed to a shoemaker as a teenager. His dissoluteness eventually resulted in his expulsion from town, and he wandered about until one day, in Bristol, he occasioned upon the great evangelist, George Whitefield. Whitefield’s sermon on Zechariah 3: 2, “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” apparently gave Olivers pause to consider his own life, resulting in his conversion to evangelical Christianity. (In this case, Methodism.) Olivers returned to his hometown, made amends and became a member of the Methodist Society. (Remember, Wales has more real, unapologetic, enthusiastic Methodists per capita than most Methodist churches in Dallas.)
John Wesley commissioned Olivers as an itinerant preacher, a duty which he faithfully discharged for 22 years until he was appointed editor of the Arminian Magazine in 1775. Wesley dismissed him in 1789 because “. . . the errata were insufferable and pieces were inserted in the magazine without his knowledge.” (Apparently Wesley failed to read the part of Olivers’ resume which stated, “Uneducated.”) Olivers spent the rest of his life in London where, for some reason, he is buried with John Wesley behind Wesley’s Chapel. (The large obelisk marking their mutual grave is now overshadowed by a glass office building; however, this same obelisk, due to its inaccessibility, has provided a lunching-place for the anonymous writer of music notes on more than one occasion.)
Allegedly, Olivers was walking the streets of London when he came across the great synagogue. As service was going on, he heard the famous cantor Leoni intone a haunting melody to the words Yigdal Elohim hay (“Exalted be the living God.”) So moved, he borrowed the melody and composed a set of Christian hymn stanzas loosely based on the Yigdal—a Jewish hymn of 13 stanzas composed by Daniel ben Judah, a Roman Jewish judge who lived in the early 15th century. The original Hebrew first stanza and tune are as follows:
Olivers’ hymn is surprisingly Jewish in character. Of its nine stanzas, only three specifically mention Christ (stanza 3: “And He shall save me to the end through Jesus’ blood”; stanza 7: “The Prince of Peace on Zion’s height”; and stanza 9 which is doxological.) Having written no other extant hymn, Olivers’ hymn offers a brief glimpse of the Jewish liturgy, albeit in a New Testament context.