“Millennials love hymns” was my Instagram caption just below a video of a rowdy, tattooed choir of roughly two thousand twenty-and-thirty-somethings. The concert sounded like a congregation, flooding the room with voices that were passionately singing the 261-year-old lyrics, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, / Prone to leave the God I love.”
I captured the video near the end of a King’s Kaleidoscope concert in Nashville, Tennessee, when they performed their version of my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” It’s true, by the way: millennials do, in fact, love hymns and Robert Robinson’s classic confession seems to strike a chord with an inner restlessness we all deeply feel. In a word, restlessness described Robinson (1735-1790) in his life and ministry. I suppose on some level all hymns are autobiographical, but the lyrics to “Come Thou Fount” are striking in light of his spiritual journey. His conversion story is worth telling.
Jesus Sought Me When a Stranger
While in London as a barber’s apprentice, Robinson found himself on a Sunday—like many of us have, I’m sure—harassing a drunken gypsy with his friends. After loading up the fortune teller with a few too many drinks, he and his friends demanded she tell their fortunes for free. The drunken oracle told Robinson that he would live to see his kids and grandchildren. Robert, who came more for sport than prophetic word, was shaken by this encounter. The vision of having a life full of family and a future compelled him to journey away from his “gang of notorious hoodlums and his debauched life.”
Soon after this strange encounter, Robert decided to go and hear evangelist George Whitefield preach. In order to get his friends to join him, he invited them to accompany him in heckling the Great Awakening preacher. He and his friends got more than they bargained for when Whitefield delivered a terrifying message from Matthew 3:7, warning his hearers to “flee the wrath of God to come.”
As the bellowing voice of Whitefield filled the air, Robinson’s soul was struck with terror. This encounter began a dark and fearful three-year journey toward surrender. It was in that darkness that Jesus sought Robert as a stranger who had wandered far from the fold of God. It was in that place that Jesus interposed his precious blood and rescued his new brother from the danger of God’s wrath to come. Two years after his conversion, Robinson penned “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” He would write many other hymns, including “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.”
Prone to Leave the God I Love
Plagued with perpetual wanderlust, the barber-turned-poet preacher often wrestled with his belief and regularly moved between denominations and theological camps. Robinson was, in fact, prone to wander. The one-time reformed Methodist would eventually work with Independents before settling in with a Baptist church for nearly thirty years. During his time as pastor, he regularly published letters and books pushing against the accepted norms of his camp. He stepped down from his last pastoral position in 1790 when he resigned as a pastor of Stone Yard Baptist Church in Cambridge.
Around the time Robinson resigned from Stone Yard, he became close friends with a man named Joseph Priestly and other fellow Unitarians. This friendship has caused many to accuse him of affirming Unitarian doctrine and of denying the deity of Christ just before his death. Robert Robinson died on June 9, 1790. There is little consensus from scholars about the final state of his heart.
There is a story often told, but unverified, that just before he died, Robinson found himself riding on a stagecoach next to a woman singing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The woman noticed that Robinson was affected by her singing, and asked him what he thought about the hymn. The story says that Robinson’s eyes filled with tears when he replied, “Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”
When we peek behind the protective veil of time and nostalgia, the humanity we find can at times be startling. Our musical heroes are especially human. I believe that Robinson’s artistic superpower was his unwillingness to cover up that humanity. His lyrics are honest, raw, and filled with angst. That angst resonates with my wandering heart. His poetry puts words to what I often deeply feel; that my heart needs to be tuned to sing, and if it weren’t for God’s seeking, sealing, keeping grace then I would surely perish in that wrath Whitefield warned us about.
It’s my job to choose the words we sing at our church each week, and I find this honest pleading all too rare in both modern and traditional music. While Robinson may have eventually wandered a little too far from the God he once loved, his words are still a powerful tool that the church would be unwise to leave unsung.
- “Robert Robinson” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/person/Robinson_R
- “Did Robert Robinson Wander as He Feared?” Christianty.com, July 2007, “https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/did-robert-robinson-wander-as-he-feared-11630313.html
- “Robert Robinson” Stem Publishing, https://stempublishing.com/hymns/biographies/robinson.html
- C. Michael Hawn. “History of Hymns: “Come, thou Fount of every blessing”” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-come-thou-fount-of-every-blessing
- Robinson, Robert. Cyberhymnal. http://www.cyberhymnal.org