This beloved hymn text was written by Robert Robinson (27 September 1735 – 9 June 1790), an English Dissenting minister who seemed to spend his life searching for truth. He early rejected a belief in infant baptism, which caused some trouble with the Anglicans when he went to study at Cambridge. . . with his twelve unbaptised children. He heard the great evangelist George Whitefield preach in 1757 and briefly became a Methodist, although he soon abandoned that endeavor and formed a Congregationalist church in Norwich, although tiring of that he moved to a Baptist church in Cambridge in 1759 where he remained for the rest of his life. He somehow became mixed up with the Unitarians toward the end of his life, and a scandal erupted wherein his congregation surmised that he didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ. Fortunately, he was able to convince them that he did believe in Christ. Nonetheless, from the perspective of over two centuries hither, this hymnologist can’t help but think Robinson could have used a little more grounding in scripture than in trusting ephemeral feelings.
Perhaps that is an unfair accusation to level against Robinson, because he certainly did know his scripture. The second stanza begins, “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12 in which Samuel raises a stone monument saying, “This far has the Lord helped.” Unfortunately, many hymnal settings today change this obscure Old Testament reference to something more palatable, such as “Here I find my greatest treasure, hither, by thy help I’ve come.” This doesn’t leave us asking the question, “What is an Ebenezer?” thereby leading us further into scripture. Robinson’s Calvinism is evident in the third stanza, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!” Humanity, then, is sinful and fallen, unable to redeem itself without the work of grace, as we read in Ephesians 2: 8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one may boast.” Robinson cries out to “Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love, hear’s my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” These words certainly reflect a belief in the depravity of mankind, which Paul notes in Romans 3: 10, quoting from Psalm 14, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” Robinson here sets forth this idea that even human will has been corrupted and cannot be redeemed without God’s initial action, or “grace.” This Calvinist theology is steeped in really beautiful poetic language. Think of the poetic contrasts—“tune my heart to sing thy grace! Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudes praise,” with the realization that our “wandering” hearts must be “fettered” and “bound.” Robinson is consistent in his theological conception that humanity is fallen, and that only the gospel can save.
The catchy tune in named NETTLETON after Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844), an American evangelist involved with the Second Great Awakening. Not having much of a track record as a musician, it is possible this tune was composed, compiled, or arranged by John Wyeth, the early nineteenth-century music printer and publisher. Its rugged, triple meter, simple tune, and straightforward AABA musical form allow it to be sung with enthusiasm by even the most recalcitrant singer whose heart, perhaps, needs to be fettered by grace.