We Still March to His Tune

Oliver Holden (1765-1844)

On June 17, 1775, the Battle of Bunker Hill raged as the British Redcoats sought to take Breed’s Hill from the entrenched American Rebels. At the bottom of the hill and just across the water from Boston, the four hundred houses of Charlestown roared in flame. In response to sniper fire from the town, the British had bombarded it with red-hot cannon balls.[1] By the end of the day, the British would have control of the hill, but their loss of 1,150 soldiers compared to only 411 colonists[2] will give the moral victory to the Americans.

In 1786, only five years after the surrender of the British at Yorktown and a year before the U.S. Constitution will be drawn up, the town of Charlestown is still recovering from its personal tragedy. Workers are needed to restore the destroyed city. One man who found his way to the city is a 21-year-old carpenter named Oliver Holden.[3] Holden, a fifth generation American who traced his descent from a Richard Holden, a 1634 emigrant from England, moved to Charlestown from Shirley, Massachusetts in that year.[4]

But Oliver Holden was not a simple working man. He had interests other than carpentry. In time, he opened a general store and later dealt broadly in real estate. As his wealth grew, he became involved in politics and served several terms in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

Neither was Holden just a man of the world. He knew and loved the Lord and earnestly lived as a Christian and a Baptist. He joined the First Baptist Church of Boston in 1791, but the evidence shows him to have been a Baptist before this date. Another known interest during these years was his love for music. He admitted that his only musical instruction consisted of two month’s instruction in a Singing School in 1783, but this did not stop him from being one of the premier early American hymnists.

Soon after joining the First Baptist Church of Boston, he became the leader of the church choir. This choir has the distinction of being the first Baptist church choir in America and was in operation as early as 1771. Holden’s interest in music led him to publish a number of collections of sacred hymns, producing at least seven works between 1792 and 1800. Most likely, he wrote much of this music and the music sung by the church choir. Holden also wrote the words to a number of hymns.

Oliver Holden’s dedication to missionary work and holiness can be seen in his church affiliations. In April of 1801, he was one of 14 members of the Boston Church who were given their church letters so that they might start the First Baptist Church of Charlestown. Holden left the musical opportunities of the much larger Boston Church in order to start a new church across the river. In 1802, he further revealed his heart when he became one of the 12 original trustees for the Massachusetts Baptist Missionary Society. This was several years before American Baptists sent out their first foreign missionaries. He was clearly willing to sacrifice the glory of the moment at the head of America’s only Baptist choir in order to take the gospel to new places.

Holden’s stand for holy living can been seen in a later church problem. In 1809, Holden and a few other members split off from the First Baptist of Charlestown and formed the Second Baptist Church. They left the first church because of its laxness in disciplining its members. Holden served as the pastor of the new church which was derogatorily referred to at Holden’s “Puritan Society.” We could use such stands on holiness and biblical church discipline today.

Of all the things Oliver Holden did during his lifetime, his famous work is his composition of the hymn tune called CORONATION. It was composed in 1793 and is used today whenever we sing Edward Perronet’s hymn, “All Hail the Power of Jesus Name.” He called it CORONATION because of the references to the crowning of Jesus in the refrain. Hamilton C. MacDougall, in his Early New England Psalmody , said: “Out of the hundreds of tunes written in New England from 1770 to 1823…, CORONATION is the only one now in general and approved use in the United States.”[5] And this surviving hymn tune from early America was written by the Baptist Oliver Holden.

The following hymn written by Holden was still in use in a number of 19th century hymn books. It first appeared in 1793 and speaks of the importance of secret prayer since God is present everywhere.

All those who seek a throne of grace,
Are sure to find in every place;
To those who love a life of prayer,
Our God is present everywhere.
The shady grove or burning plain,
The blooming field or swelling main,
Alike are sweet in secret prayer,
For God is present everywhere.
In pining sickness, rosy health,
In poverty or growing wealth,
The humble soul delights in prayer,
And God is present everywhere.
When Zion mourns, and comforts fall,
And all her foes do scoff and rail,
‘Tis then a time for secret prayer,
For God is present everywhere.
When some backslide and other fall,
And few are found who strive at all,
The faithful find in secret prayer,
That God is present everywhere.
Come, then, my soul, in every strait,
To Jesus come and on him wait,
He sees and hears each secret sigh,
And brings his own salvation nigh.[6]
[1] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 142.
[2] James Trager, The People’s Chronology (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992), 321.
[3] Harry Eskew, David W. Music, Paul A. Richardson, Singing Baptists (Nashville, TN: Church Street Press, 1994), 19.
[4] Henry Burrage, Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns (Portland, ME: Brown Thurston & Company, 1888), 235
[5] Eskew, 24.
[6] Burrage, 237.
David Reagan

Daily Proverb

Proverbs 20:19

He that goeth about as a talebearer revealeth secrets: therefore meddle not with him that flattereth with his lips.