Author: Grace Greater than All Our Sin
I have partly learned some of my lessons,
Some others but dimly I see;
I was ever, I think, a slow learner:
My Teacher is patient with me;
So patient and tender and loving,
So gentle and kindly His rule,
I care not how simple my lessons,
If they are but taught in His school …
(Julia Harriet Johnston, School of the Master, 1880)
Born on January 21, 1849, Julia Harriette Johnston seemed destined to become a prolific writer and faithful servant of the Lord. Her father, Robert, was a Presbyterian minister in Corinth, Ohio (28 miles north of Youngstown), when Julia was born, but a year later he moved the family 275 miles southeast to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in order to pastor the only Presbyterian church in town. His pastorate there lasted until Julia was six, at which time Robert assumed the pastorate of First Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois (the site of the 1863 meeting of the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches). It would be his last because in 1864, Robert went home to be with the Lord when Julia was only 15 years old.
Julia seemed “destined” to become a faithful servant of the Lord. We say “destined” because thirteen of her closest relatives (not counting her father) were connected to the clergy in some way. Her destiny as a writer seemed to be sealed, as well, because her mother composed poetry throughout her life and often immersed Julia in its beauty. Julia began publishing her own creations at the tender age of nine under the pseudonym “Juniata”, but it wasn’t until adulthood that her literary gift began to blossom. By the time of her death, Julia had composed well over 500 hymns and several books (some that contained her own poetry).
Life in Peoria was anything but mundane for the Johnston family.
“From the time of her conversion onward, Julia faithfully laboured for the Master in many pursuits. For more than forty years, she was a Sunday school teacher of infants, was president of the Presbyterian Missionary Society in Peoria, Il, for more than 20 years, wrote several books for Sunday Schools, and penned more than 500 hymns.” (Melody Productions, “Grace Greater than Our Sin – Julia Johnston”, 2022)
The Presbyterian Missionary Society in Peoria that Julia led was actually founded by Julia’s mother.
Julia penned the words to “Grace Greater than All Our Sin” in 1910. Always on the lookout for someone to put her creations to music, Julia found Daniel Brink Towner to compose the tune. D. B. Towner was born in Rome, Pennsylvania, on March 5, 1850, and was musically trained by his father initially. Towner was well respected as a composer, providing the tune to such classic hymns as Anywhere with Jesus, At Calvary, My Anchor Holds, The Old Ship of Zion, Saved by the Blood, and Trust and Obey. He composed the tune for “Grace Greater than All Our Sin” about the same time as Julia wrote the text, but the two were not paired until Towner first published the hymn in Hymns Tried and True in 1911. The tune was given the name “Moody” because of his connection to D. L. Moody’s evangelistic campaigns and the Moody Bible Institute.
“He also had charge of the music for several years at the College Students’ Conference at Mount Hermon and Northfield, Massachusetts. In the fall of 1893, he assumed the superintendency of the music in the Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, whereby his ability as an organizer and teacher he has succeeded in establishing one of the most unique and prosperous training schools for gospel singers in the world. It can be confidently said that most of the noted gospel singers of the present day [written 1915] have either been trained by, or have had personal contact with, Dr. Towner.
In September, 1900, the degree of Music Doctor was conferred upon him by the University of Tennessee.” (Hall, Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers, 1914)
Julia Harriette Johnston died in Peoria, Illinois, on March 6, 1919, and is buried at the Springdale Cemetery in her hometown.
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