‘O Boundless Salvation’
01 July 2015
As thousands of Salvationists gather in London, England, for the Boundless International Congress, it’s easy to envision a vast crowd of delegates heartily singing the Army’s quintessential hymn, William Booth’s ‘O Boundless Salvation’.
Since its origins as a song designed for the 1893 ‘Boundless Salvation’ spiritual campaign in Great Britain, the song has not only been an enduring favourite of Salvation Army congregations, but has also received special musical treatment at pivotal moments in Salvationist history.
Evolution of a Classic
Composed in just one long evening, the song was sung to an obscure tune previously connected to an older hymn, ‘My Jesus, I Love Thee’. To this, General Booth requested that a popular chorus, in 6/8 time, be added: ‘The heavenly gales are blowing.’ The premiere occurred during the ‘Boundless Salvation’ campaign weekend of 14-15 November 1894 in London’s Exeter Hall. This was not the Founder’s first song though; it was the fourth in a string of popular texts, including another long-standing ‘hit’, ‘Thou Christ of Burning, Cleansing Flame’.
Both the 1986 and 2015 editions of The Song Book of The Salvation Army contain all seven verses of ‘O Boundless Salvation’, but that was not always the case. These days some prefer the full version, while others wish for something not so protracted. In the first congregational song book (1899-1900), just the text of five verses appeared at the bottom of the page in the keyboard edition (no. 185), below ‘My Jesus, I Love Thee’. A note states, ‘Another song to the above tune’, but no mention is made of the added chorus.
At approximately the same time in the United States, in Commander Frederick Booth-Tucker’s Favorite Songs of the Salvation Army – a words and music book – the song appeared under the title ‘The Heavenly Gales are Blowing’. Commander Evangeline Booth then reprinted it in Popular Songs of the Flag (1905, USA), again with just five verses. In 1917, as no. 185 of Salvation Songs, it appeared with only four verses, words and music, but no chorus. By the 1930 revised edition of The Song Book of The Salvation Army, it had gained status. It was now the first song in the book, with all seven verses, but the chorus was left to the memories of older veterans.
A Powerful Metaphor
Having all seven verses allows the congregation to feel the full impact of Booth’s remarkable progression through a simple, yet profound, metaphor: the ocean as the all-encompassing, redeeming love of Christ. Booth proclaimed the gospel message to the ‘whosoever’ – ‘the whole world redeeming’. The song states up front a ‘fullness of mercy’ available to all. Booth’s line of thought then runs from the recognition of sin, to salvation gained and, finally, faith strengthened. Verse two begins with what seems to be a personal confession from the author. You can trace Booth’s use of the first person throughout all seven verses. Yet also note the final universal application: ‘for you and for me!’ Booth wished the song to capture as many hearts as possible, and he keeps the song’s trajectory urgent throughout the verses until its glorious conclusion.
Accounts of the song’s use at key moments in Salvation Army history add something to its normal year-in, year-out use within our movement. In his last public appearance on 9 May 1912, the Founder led the song with a packed audience in London’s Royal Albert Hall, even as he struggled with health problems that kept his normally strong voice from being as resonant as he would have wished.
On 17 May 1930, during the 50th anniversary American National Congress, John Philip Sousa conducted a massed band of more than 700 musicians in his new ‘The Salvation Army March’. Sousa had been approached by Evangeline Booth to write a march in honour of the event. He dedicated the march to her, and incorporated ‘O Boundless Salvation’ in the trio, the second part of the march. When heard at the premiere, the thousands of Salvationists present broke into spontaneous applause when that tune sounded. When he first decided to use the tune, Sousa declared, on having all seven verses sung to him, that General Booth ‘had been inspired’. Sousa meant this as the sincerest compliment he could have given.
When the Army celebrated its Centenary Congress in 1965, the Royal Albert Hall once again resounded with the anthem– this time in a majestic arrangement by Commissioner Dean Goffin, using the full resources of the International Staff Band, fanfare trumpeters and the hall’s mighty pipe organ supporting the huge congregation’s singing. This setting soon became available to all Army bands worldwide and maintained consistent use until William Himes provided a new festive arrangement in 1999 for the visit of General John Gowans to the USA Central Territory. This four-verse congregational accompaniment was used the following year at the Millennial International Congress in Atlanta, Georgia, and soon appeared in the General Series band journal. Interestingly, Himes lowered the pitch of the melody to make it easier to sing, as the original key stretched the range of the average vocalist.
Now, at the outset of this 150th anniversary celebration, Dean Goffin’s classic arrangement of 50 years ago is to be rekindled before its largest-ever audience as the Blood and Fire flag makes its entrance before some 15,000 Salvationists and friends in The O2 arena, and potentially tens of thousands more through the live stream of the ‘Joyful Army’ opening session.
Booth’s imagery in this song may seem to some a remnant of the late Victorian age. Yet it has had a lasting impact and effective use in worship due to its clear, unequivocal message of the boundless, redeeming love of Christ. Each generation will take the anthem as its own, no doubt changing the musical style of the arrangement, but the inspiration that first brought forth this compelling hymn will live on for many years to come.
By Ronald W. Holz -
Photos courtesy of The Salvation Army National Archives
This article was included in issue two of Boundless Today. Click to read all issues of Boundless Today.