Author: I Will Sing the Wondrous Story
What do slaughterhouses in Massachusetts have to do with the hymn “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story?”
One man. A Baptist pastor. Francis Harold Rowley.
Born in 1854, Francis was the son of a medical doctor. He accomplished his preliminary education at the Wilson Preparatory School in Rochester, New York, before graduating with his B. A. from the University of Rochester in 1875. Immediately, Rowley enrolled in what was then called the Rochester Theological Seminary, graduating in 1878 with his Bachelor of Divinity. The president of RTS at the time Rowley attended was Augustus Hopkins Strong, who served there until 1912 and wrote his seminal work Systematic Theology while president.
“An offshoot of Colgate Theological Seminary was planted in Rochester in 1850 by a group of Baptists who wished to remove both Colgate University and its theological seminary to an urban setting … a number of faculty and students came from Colgate to Rochester to help begin a new university and seminary in what was then a booming urban center. As a result, the Rochester Theological Seminary was founded concurrently with the University of Rochester.
In 1928, the Colgate and Rochester seminaries merged to become Colgate Rochester Divinity School … In 1970, Crozer Theological Seminary merged with Colgate Rochester Divinity School to form Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (CRCDS), bringing Crozer’s deep commitment to social justice and theological education oriented to the work of ministry.” (www.crcds.edu)
Upon graduation, Rowley embarked on a 30+ year career as a Baptist pastor. Over that time, he pastored six churches dispersed throughout Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Illinois, the last being the famous First Baptist Church of Boston.
“In 1665, two women and seven men organized a Baptist church based on their strong commitment as disciples of Jesus Christ and their determination to worship God with freedom of conscience (soul liberty). They organized this church, the third church of any kind to be founded in Boston and the fifth Baptist church in all America, on June 7th, 1665 … At first, the group met in homes, usually at the home of Mr. Gould in Charlestown. Later, he built a house on Noddle’s Island (now the location of Logan Airport, in East Boston) and the members rowed out to the island where they could meet in secrecy and relative security … In the years that followed, many were punished for trying to practice the Baptist “heresy.” They were arrested, jailed, publicly beaten, fined, and often were not allowed to speak in their own defense.” (www.baptisthistoryhomepage.com)
In addition to pastoring, Rowley served as Trustee of the University of Chicago Divinity School, Secretary of the American Humane Association, Visiting Professor at Harvard Divinity School, Executive Committee member of the American Baptist Mission Union Board, President of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and President of the American Humane Education Society.
It was his work on the humane treatment of animals that earned him numerous accolades (In 1947, Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, named the Rowley School of Humanities after him). His criticism of the docking of horse tails earned him wide notoriety and launched him into a second career as an advocate for animal welfare and the humane movement. After resigning from his last pastorate, Rowley spent the remainder of his life (over 40 years) involved in various projects meant to ease or eliminate the mistreatment of wild and domesticated animals.
Perhaps his most graphic appeal to the conscience of his fellow citizens occurred in 1914.
“Rowley aimed to remind people of violence toward animals that was occurring in the slaughterhouse and how people’s consumer choices were part of a cycle of cruelty, although not always visible. In 1914, one of the photographs Rowley circulated was titled “For the Sake of a Veal Cutlet”. It shows a young calf being slaughtered by two men. The calf is suspended from hooks attached to the slaughterhouse ceiling. The calf can be seen kicking and fighting for his life as a worker slices the calf’s fur, skin and muscles, whilst blood pours to the floor.” (www.wikipedia.com)
As a result of his photo and incessant lobbying, the Massachusetts legislature finally enacted a statute requiring slaughterhouses to render the animals unconscious before being dismembered.
Many years before his crusades against animal cruelty, however, Rowley was pastoring in North Adams, Massachusetts, along with a very accomplished musician and assistant, Peter Bilhorn. In 1886, Bilhorn asked Rowley to compose the text for a tune he wanted to gift to one of his mentors, Ira Sankey. The connection?
“He [Bilhorn] was converted in a gospel meeting of Dr. Pentecost and musician George Stebbins, two of D. L. Moody’s associates. When Peter Bilhorn came to Brooklyn, Mr. Stebbins invited him to stay in his home until he could find a place of his own. It was there he wrote his first gospel song melody– I Will Sing the Wondrous Story. George Stebbins harmonized it for him, since Bilhorn hadn’t yet studied harmony.” (www.wordwisehymns.com)
When Sankey received the composition, he was extremely impressed with the quality of the text and the tune, especially since it was Bilhorn’s first attempt at such an undertaking. After editing some of the wording, Sankey published his gift in the 1887 edition of Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs and Solos.
Francis Rowley died on February 14, 1952, in Boston, Massachusetts. He’s buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.
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