Merry Christmas! This week I would like to share 2 songs and videos. The first is a beautiful classic Christmas hymn that we do not often sing. The second is a secular song that we often hear during the Christmas season. Please watch and listen.
After hearing those songs you might be thinking they have little in common, which is incorrect. Both had at least their lyrics written by Benjamin Russell Hanby. Benjamin’s father William was a maker of harnesses and saddles. He was also a minister (later bishop) of the United Brethren Church. Their home in Rushville, Ohio, in Fairfield County, was a noted stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1840’s. Benjamin grew up with the same dedication to God, and to the abolition of slavery as his father. The family eventually moved to Westerville, Ohio, where William helped establish Otterbein University. Benjamin enrolled there at 16, and graduated. He also became a minister in the Brethren Church. The Hanby family continued to assist former slaves by providing shelter and protection in their Westerville home.
Benjamin was a self-taught musician, and loved music. He began to write songs in support of abolition. One of his earliest and most famous songs was “Darling Nelly Gray,” which was based on the account of an escaped slave named Joseph Selby. He planned to save up enough money to free his love, Nelly Gray, who had been sold to a plantation as a slave. Unfortunately Joseph was very ill, and died in the Hanby home before he was able to fulfill his dream. Joseph and his story made a deep impression on Benjamin. “Nelly Gray” became very popular, and was sung by troops on both sides of the Civil War– as inspiration for the Union, and in a derogatory manner by the Confederacy. He wrote several other songs in support of abolition.
He discovered that he loved teaching, especially children. He continued to write musical scores and lyrics. One of the songs he taught to his classes was one designed as a sing along to help his students develop– “Up on the Housetop.” He also wrote many hymns, including “Who is He in Yonder Stall?” He moved to Chicago to work with a music publishing company to produce and publish his music. There he contracted tuberculosis, and passed away at the young age of 33.
I am always impressed by someone like Benjamin Hanby, who was able to make such an impact on so many people in such a short earthly life. Again I am reminded of Jesus’ parable about the talents, where someone who makes the most of their blessings will receive even more. During his lifetime the efforts of his family to help many to freedom and safety was undoubtedly appreciated by many and had a lasting impact. “Darling Nelly Gray” played a role in rallying people to the cause of ending slavery. After his lifetime his songs have lived on. “Who is he in Yonder Stall?” beautifully describes Christ’s person, work, and place in the Kingdom, reminding us of God’s greatest gift. Even a less serious song like “Up on the Housetop” continues to remind people of Christmas and establish the mood of the season.
We know that we do not deserve God’s grace, and can in no way give Him any gift comparable to His gift of Jesus to us. We can accept His gift and try to live a life pleasing to Him. I am reminded of the final words of Christina Rossetti’s carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”: “Yet what I can I give Him, give my heart.” It is a blessing to see these words lived out in the life of Benjamin Hanby.
Take heart and be encouraged!