Leila Naylor Morris (1862–1929) was a Methodist composer of gospel hymns. Her published compositions appear under the name “Mrs. C. H. Morris.” Between 1892 and her death, she produced more than 1,000 hymn texts and their music, several of which remain in print. “Nearer, Still Nearer,” one of Morris’s most successful songs, was translated during her lifetime into German, Mandarin, Korean, Zulu, and Hindi. Her efforts were motivated by the Wesleyan holiness movement, a prominent vein in American evangelical revivalism and foreign missionary efforts. Subscribers to holiness theology believe in sanctification as a discrete act of the Holy Spirit, subsequent to justification and responsible for preserving one’s faith in God through purity of thoughts and actions. As in the broader hymnic tradition of the Third Great Awakening, Morris’s texts bear a generalized gospel message of salvation, couched in familiar language and set in popular musical styles.

Life.

Morris was born on 15 April 1862, at Pennsville, Ohio, the fifth of seven children. With few exceptions, her life was transacted within a small region of the state’s southeastern foothills. When her father, John T. E. Naylor, returned in 1866 from the Civil War, the family relocated to the nearby village of Malta, where he died shortly thereafter. His widow, Olivia Naylor, opened a millinery shop there with the assistance of her daughters, and Morris became skilled in the trade. She read eagerly, took instruction at the piano from age 10, and at 12 began to play the reed organ at the Methodist Protestant Church in Malta. In 1891 she married the ornithologist Charles H. Morris and settled in McConnelsville, opposite Malta on the west bank of the Muskingum River. His father’s comfortable means afforded them a large house there that became a social center for both church and community. Beyond music and nature, the family took notable interest in literature, and the home library they assembled was esteemed throughout the county.

In McConnellsville, Morris joined the Methodist Episcopal Church—that of her husband’s family—and contributed to the Sunday school, the Epworth League (a Methodist youth organization), the Missionary Society, and naturally the choir, as well as to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Only at age 30 did she begin to compose hymns, having encountered Wesleyan holiness doctrine at the Mountain Lake Park camp meeting in western Maryland. With a faith centered on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Morris viewed herself as a conduit for divinely inspired texts and music. “I am just a channel,” she told an admirer: “I just open my mind and let the story flow through me from somewhere” (Weiss, 1953, p. 13). Working out the hymns in her mind as she attended to domestic duties, she would then move to the piano and ultimately commit them to paper. She continued in spite of failing eyesight after 1912, using a typewriter to produce texts and, briefly, a large blackboard engraved by her son Will with oversized musical staves. When completely blind, Morris dictated the music to her eldest daughter, Fanny, during annual visits from Auburn, New York. She spent the final months of her life in Auburn and died there on 25 July 1929.

Morris’s hymns found their way into print through a network of gospel music publishers and song evangelists—itinerant singers who variously wrote, performed, and led music at revival meetings. Her work first caught the attention of such an evangelist in Malta, who referred her to the counsel of the Irish American gospel composer and hymnal compiler Henry Lake Gilmour at Mountain Lake Park. Morris’s first published hymns appeared in Gilmour’s Songs of Love and Praise Nos. 3–4 (1896–1897). As her successes multiplied, she was advised to place her compositions across an array of published collections rather than in exclusive volumes, although that strategy does not seem to have brought remuneration commensurate with their popularity. When one hymn became especially successful, a publisher might request another of similar character. The international renown Morris enjoyed in her later years is evinced in a 1929 letter from Germany reporting the frequent use of her hymn “Nearer, Still Nearer,” which had circulated in translation there in at least 2.4 million copies, and requesting biographical details for the sake of hymnological research. Her daughter Mary, working as a missionary in China, likewise recalled overhearing the hymn sung at daily chapel services in a Shanghai hospital. Morris later took an explicit interest in Methodist foreign missions, producing hymns such as “A Worldwide Revival.”

Exegetical Strategies.

Morris’s hymns invoke a broad range of biblical reference, often expressed anecdotally and folded into a presentist theme of conversion or piety. As a contemporary hymnologist notes, “a study of her hymns reveals not the bizarre and unusual, but the homely words in common use, telling in the briefest metrical form those experiences which are found on practically every page of the New Testament” (Gabriel, 1916, p. 20). In this, and in her frequent insertion of Christ into Old Testament texts, Morris belongs to a Protestant hymnic tradition originating in the early eighteenth century with the English divine Isaac Watts.

“The Grand Old Ark” conflates Christ and his global church with Noah’s capacious ark, so that God’s invitation to Noah in Genesis 7:1—“Come thou and all thy house into the ark …”—becomes a call to all Christians. The metaphor unfolds within the first stanza, as observation swiftly turns to participation:

See the ark of God, on the waters launch’d,While the waves are tossing high;To her broad, firm deck for safety flee,No other refuge nigh.

Morris proceeds with the imagery of Genesis 8, in which Noah sends out a dove to test the recession of the floodwaters. But here Christ is the captain, welcoming back his doves when earth’s “wild, dark waste of sin” offers no place to roost and ultimately steering the vessel into its heavenly port. The imagery of the ark and its occupants has long invited fulsome visual depictions, including three lithographs by Currier and Ives during Morris’s lifetime. She, in turn, exploits the ark’s affinity with the thronging ethos of camp-meeting revivalism. The third stanza counts “many million souls on her deck … and millions coming still,” leading to a refrain whose antiphonal configuration magnifies its sonic dimensions in performance:

They are coming,(To the ark,)Yes, they’re coming,(To the ark,)They are coming to the ark tonight:(They are coming,)Like doves to their windows they are flocking, flocking,They are coming to the ark tonight.

This sense of sung community is idiomatic of gospel hymnody and has antecedents in late-eighteenth-century New England psalmody, which spread into the Ohio Valley and upland South during the early nineteenth century.

Despite the simple language of her hymns, Morris reportedly knew the biblical underpinnings of holiness doctrine in detail. In honoring her in 1928, the celebrated minister, hymnist, and publisher Haldor Lillenas doubted that “a writer ha[d] ever lived whose songs are as full of scriptural truth” (Weiss, 1953, p. 24). The hymn “Growing Brighter Every Day,” an oblique nod to Christian perfectionism, is rife with quotations and paraphrases of both Old and New Testaments. Harkening to Wesley’s call for ongoing sanctification after justification, Morris speaks of salvation as a departure, citing Jesus’s benediction to the sinful woman of Luke 7:50 (“Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”):

I can ne’er forget the day when Jesus saved me,Speaking pardon to my guilty, sin-sick soul,Or the blessed words of comfort there he gave me,“Go in peace, thy faith hath sav’d and made thee whole.”

A later stanza invokes familiar images from Psalm 23:2 (“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters”), followed by phrases from John 1:16 (“And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace”) and 2 Corinthians 3:18 (“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord”) concerning human reflection of divinity:

In his pastures green and large I’m ever feeding,And my thirst is quench’d where living waters flow,While from “grace to grace” the Spirit still is leadingAnd from “glory unto glory” here below.

Morris’s depth of reference appears still greater with comparison to a passage by Octavius Winslow, the influential nineteenth-century preacher, in his Born Again; or, From Grace to Glory. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me,” Winslow quotes from John 10:27, adding, “And thus the new creature … shall advance towards its destined completion, from grace to grace, until it is changed from glory to glory” (Winslow, 1864, p. 115). Concluding her plea for progress toward holiness, Morris refers to a pilgrimage “crowned with glory”—as Christ is crowned for his suffering in Hebrews 2:9—and in closing alights on Proverbs 4:18: “But the path of the just is as the shining light, / That shineth more and more unto the perfect day.” Her strategy recalls a method of Bible study and preaching associated with the urban revivalist Dwight Moody, which involved gleaning scattered references from Alexander Cruden’s biblical concordance and synthesizing them into a single exegesis.

Musical Settings.

Morris’s gospel hymns are the stylistic descendants of Sunday school songs and camp-meeting hymnody of the Second Great Awakening. Their simple language is matched by an upbeat choral style, characterized by pervasively lilting and syncopated rhythms, that was ubiquitous among the children’s songs of William Bradbury, George Root, and their successors. As often found among frontier camp songs of the earlier nineteenth century, they comprise several stanzas of verse and a repetitive chorus or refrain. Unlike Protestant hymnody of the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries, where texts and tunes were paired interchangeably, each text is bound to a unique musical setting. Morris composed original tunes and did not follow the earlier revival practice of expropriating popular secular music, yet she often emulated its idioms. The jaunty iambic rhythms of “The Fight Is On,” an evangelical call to arms, could just as aptly be played as an instrumental march for brass band or sung as a collegiate fight song. Others of Morris’s compositions recall Victorian parlor songs and glees. Gospel hymnody’s borrowing from these genres incited perennial criticism, for they belonged as much to the minstrel stage as to the choir loft, and as the nineteenth century closed, Methodists wrestled with the relative utility of musical allure and cultural uplift in the evangelical cause.

Critical Reception.

Despite the success of her hymns, Morris has attracted limited scholarly attention, some of which presents interpretive problems for the modern scholar. Her primary biographer, Mary Ethel Weiss (1934), is laudatory but opaque, guided by personal acquaintance with her subject yet distracted by the mores of their shared religious community. Keith Schwanz (1998), a seminary professor in the Church of the Nazarene, pursues his study of nine Wesleyan women hymnists without regard for the historical insights and strategies developed in gender studies since the 1970s. Mostly citing Weiss and George Sanville (1943), he presents Morris as a dutiful homemaker with a surprisingly prolific output of hymns, seeing the disjuncture as either defying investigation or not warranting it. Meanwhile, Sanville handily minimizes Morris’s authorial voice in his commentary on the hymn “Let Jesus Come into Your Heart.” He describes it as the product of a spontaneous series of entreaties, voiced by Morris, Gilmour, and the preacher H. L. Baker, to a supplicant at Mountain Lake Park:

Morris: “Just now your doubting give o’er.”Gilmour: “Just now reject him no more.”Baker: “Just now throw open the door.”Morris: “Let Jesus come into your heart.”

(Sanville, 1943, p. 28)

Sanville intends his commentaries to be epitomical of the hymnists’ “spiritual experiences” and work, and in this sense he reduces Morris’s identity to that of a scribe. If spurious, the anecdote fits within a larger pattern of male aversion to women’s public ministry; if truthful, however, it reveals what June Hadden Hobbs (1997) reads as strategic self-censorship by women hymnists. Her study finds Morris and others couching their own voices in preexistent language, such as through quotation of scripture; in the language of domesticity, which was safely their realm; and in ostensibly collective sentiments, as Sanville’s anecdote would suggest. In particular, she connects “Let Jesus Come into Your Heart” with the influence of the Victorian domestic novel, insofar as Morris ushers Christ from a masculine public sphere into the female domain of the home. While Morris herself leaves no evidence of resenting her circumstances or seeking to overturn the gendered power dynamics that regulated her religious activities, the interests of feminist criticism nevertheless unlock a fuller investigation of how she functioned within their domain. Whether the scant documentary record on Morris can sustain a fresh, full-length study is questionable, but any scholarship that can offer her work the sustained critical attention it merits and erase any further surprise at the intellectual life she enjoyed as a homemaker will be of great interest.

[See also PROTESTANT HYMNS.]

Bibliography

References

  • Gabriel, Charles H. The Singers and Their Songs: Sketches of Living Gospel Hymn Writers. Chicago: Rodeheaver, 1916. A series of biographical sketches, including one of Morris, reflective of her contemporary reputation.
  • Hobbs, June Hadden. “I Sing for I Cannot Be Silent”: The Feminization of American Hymnody, 1870–1920. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. An essential feminist study of gospel hymnody and female authorship. It investigates the strategies of women hymnists denied a public voice and explores their relationship to Victorian domestic fiction.
  • Sanville, George W. Forty Gospel Hymn Stories. Winona Lake, Ind.: Rodeheaver-Hall Mack, 1943. A series of anecdotes on the origins of popular hymns, purported to be the fruit of personal acquaintance with their authors. Includes commentary on Morris’s “Let Jesus Come into Your Heart.”
  • Schwanz, Keith. Satisfied: Women Hymn Writers of the 19th-Century Wesleyan/Holiness Movement. Grantham, Pa.: Wesleyan/Holiness Women Clergy, 1998. Presents biographical sketches of nine women hymnists, including Morris.
  • Weiss, Mary Ethel. Singing at Her Work: A Biography of Mrs. C. H. Morris. Rev. ed. Kansas City, Mo.: Lillenas, 1953. First published in 1934, five years after Morris’s death, this biography draws reference from personal acquaintance with her and remains the only sustained treatment of her life or work. The recollections of her former neighbor, Annie Rusk, are appended, as well as a selection of 13 hymns.
  • Winslow, Octavius. Born Again; or, From Grace to Glory. London: John F. Shaw, 1864. A treatise on sanctification that, like Winslow’s other published writings, circulated among laypersons in complement to his widespread revival preaching. Morris adapts his language on the subject in her hymn “Growing Brighter Every Day.”

Further Reading

  • Sizer, Sandra S. [Tamar Frankiel]. Gospel Hymns and Social Religion: The Rhetoric of Nineteenth-Century Revivalism. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978. A literary analysis, primarily of Ira Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Nos. 1–6 (1875–91), exploring the metaphorical content of gospel hymnody in relation to issues of gender and power. Sizer’s study hinges particularly on images of domesticity and of the Christian as victim of a turbulent world.
  • Van Dyken, Tamara J. “Singing the Gospel: Evangelical Hymnody, Popular Religion, and American Culture, 1870–1940.” PhD diss., University of Notre Dame, 2008. A useful background study, including a primer on the musical characteristics and antecedents of gospel hymns, as well as extended discussions of their reception in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church, and the Mennonite Church.

Brenton Grom