The hymn I Am Bound For The Promised Land was sung at practically ever baptizing I’ve ever attended. The song was written by Samuel Stennett (1727-1795), who was a Baptist Minister in England. Stennett’s father and grandfather were also ministers. Stennett’s grandfather, Joseph Stennett, was also a hymn writer.
The hymn that we know today doesn’t sound exactly like the one that Stennett wrote. Over the years the hymn was changed into the catchy song most of us are most familiar with today.
In an article published on The United Methodist Reporter, Michael Hawn offers the following details about the history of the song Stennett penned over 200 years ago:
“John Rippon, an English Baptist pastor, published in 1787 an influential collection, A Selection of Hymns from the Best Authors. Thirty-eight of Stennett’s hymns appeared in this popular collection. Among those was a hymn under the heading of “Heaven Anticipated” with the title of “The Promised Land” in eight four-line stanzas.
The hymn as it appeared in America looked and sounded much different. William Walker’s The Southern Harmony (1835) was the first to include “The Promised Land.” This was one of the most popular of the 19th-century, oblong-tune books with shaped notes.
The tune PROMISED LAND was paired with the text. The Southern Harmony attributes the tune to “Miss M. Durham” but we know nothing else about the composer. The tune has many of the characteristics the traditional folk melodies of the time.
Originally written in a minor mode, Rigdon M. McIntosh, a Southern musician, altered the tune to the major mode, and as was customary among American evangelicals in the 19th century added a refrain beginning with “I am bound for the promised land.” This version was published in 1895 in H. R. Christie’s Gospel Light and has become the standard version for many hymnals since that time.
From the start, the four stanzas focus on heaven. The singer stands on the banks of the Jordan River looking across to the “fair and happy land” of Canaan—a metaphoric mixture of images from the books of Exodus and Revelation. Our true “possessions” lie in Canaan (Heaven) and not on the earthly side of Jordan.
In stanza two we find that Canaan is a land of “wide extended plains” where “the eternal day” is always shining. In this land Jesus (“God the Son”) reigns. Furthermore, stanza three tells us that Canaan is a spiritually healthful place to live: “No chilling winds or poisonous breath can reach that healthful shore.” Therefore, “sickness and sorrow, pain and death” do not exist in Canaan.
In the final stanza, the singer obviously cannot wait to get there. Upon arrival in the Promised Land, we will “see [our] Father’s face, and in his bosom rest.” The refrain gives the hymn a sense of marching forward to eternal life.
Carlton R. Young, editor of The UM Hymnal, places this hymn within the context 19th-century American expansion: “The British poet composed these apocalyptic lines with an ear towards Exodus and Revelation in another setting. USA evangelicals and their song transformed the text into earthly and vital metaphors of the vision, vigor, enthusiasm, and optimism of frontier life moving on to the promised land of Kentucky or Missouri.”
The article makes me wonder what Stennett’s original version sounded like. Hard to say for sure-since I never heard the original version, but I would wager Miss M. Durham’s and Mr. McIntosh’s changes are part of the reason it is still a popular song choice for churches in my area of Appalachia and beyond.
Almost all of the Blind Pig Gang is in this video. You can see Pap, Mark, and Paul in the video-while Ben and I are hitting a few licks off camera as well.
Hope you enjoyed the history-and the song. Paul and Pap’s version most certainly make you want to tap your toes and sing along.
*Source: Hawn, C. Michael. ” The United Methodist Portal.” The United Methodist Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Sept. 2013. <http://www.umportal.org/article.asp?id=4353>.