FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Hymns That Celebrate Freedom

with Ace Collins | October 30, 2006
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Today on the broadcast, award-winning author Ace Collins tells Dennis and Barbara Rainey some of the little known facts behind the best-loved inspirational songs of America.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • Today on the broadcast, award-winning author Ace Collins tells Dennis and Barbara Rainey some of the little known facts behind the best-loved inspirational songs of America.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Ace Collins talks about some of the little known facts behind the best-loved inspirational songs of America.

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Hymns That Celebrate Freedom

With Ace Collins
October 30, 2006
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Bob: The man who wrote the song "Amazing Grace," John Newton, never forgot how God's amazing grace had saved him.  Here's Ace Collins.

Ace: Newton was one of the most despicable characters to ever sail the sea.  He was a man who could out-cuss and out-drink anyone.  He would literally pick fights, and this meanest of the mean was so mean he got kicked off most of his ships he served on, and he ended up serving on a slave trader, and in the midst of a storm all of them thought they were going to die.  He remembered his mother's prayers and got down on his knees and prayed a prayer and suddenly the seas calmed. 

 And he promised God at that particular point, "If you will save me, I will turn my life over to You."  Well, a lot of people make those promises, and Newton was one of the few who actually fulfilled it.

[song "Amazing Grace"]

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, October 30th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll hear more about God's amazing grace and about the stories behind some of our other favorite hymns.  Stay with us.

[song "Amazing Grace"]

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Friday edition, and it is that time of year – time to get out all the CDs, and the season is just kind of in the air.  It's in all the stores – time for Thanksgiving.  Get out your Thanksgiving carols and start singing along, right?

Dennis: That's what Barbara has taught us to do.

Bob: But you don't really have that many Thanksgiving carol CDs, do you?

Dennis: You know, not that many.

Bob: You do have the one that's from the back of her book, right?

Dennis: I have a few copies of that one, and that's all due to Barbara really going on a search for hymns around Thanksgiving, and it really was slim pickin's at that point.

Bob: Yes, and Barbara is joining us on the program today.  Welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Barbara: Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

Bob: This is your favorite time of year, right?

Barbara: It is my favorite time of year, that's correct.

Bob: Your favorite holiday is Thanksgiving.

Barbara: That's right.

Bob: And you wish there were more Thanksgiving CDs.

Barbara: I wish there were more Thanksgiving CDs, that's correct.

Bob: Well, we're going to be focusing for part of our time this week on some of the songs that might go on a Thanksgiving CD if you were to put one together, because our friend, Ace Collins, is back with us, Dennis.

Dennis: That's right, Ace, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Ace: It is great to be in Little Rock and be with you all.

Dennis: You're such a prolific author, and I am so glad you wrote this book, "Stories Behind the Hymns That Inspire America."

Ace: I should have dedicated it to your wife because it means so much about Thanksgiving.  If I had known you then, Barbara.

Barbara: If you'd known that – it's too bad.

Dennis: These hymns really inspire one, and if you don't know who Ace Collins is, he is the author of more than 50 books.  In fact, Bob, about a year ago, didn't we feature Ace right here on FamilyLife Today?

Bob: We talked about the stories behind some of the best-known Christmas songs, Christmas traditions, and there's a new Christmas songbook that's come out this year, right?

Ace: It comes out – yes, it's called "More Stories Behind the Songs of Christmas."  It includes 31 songs we didn't get to cover in the first book – a fun book.

Dennis: And the thing that was fascinating about this – in fact, I told Barbara as we were coming in the studio, I said, "You're such a history buff," and she told me the other day, Bob, she wished she could go back to school and get a degree in history and just to learn more of what God was up to throughout history. 

 Well, you know what?  As you study these hymns that Ace has written about here, you are about to hear some of the – I believe – the moving of God's spirit upon people's minds and hearts that have resulted in some of the great hymns of the faith.

Bob: And while these are not all Thanksgiving-oriented songs, they are songs about America, songs that have inspired us.  Some of them are hymns, some of them are more popular songs, but all of them really do point to God's blessing on our country, don't they?

Ace: And certainly we have been blessed, and when you think about, I guess, a hymn that really reflects America's values better than any, you think of "Amazing Grace," because – and we started the book with it for that reason.  It was actually written by an Englishman, John Newton.

Bob: Now, hang on, before you tell the story, because we do have – you remember this from the last time you were on – one of our callers who, whenever he hears that you're going to be on FamilyLife Today, he wants equal time.  This is a man who we refer to as "Mr. Know-it-All," and Mr. Know-it-All has been actually dogging you all across the country claiming that your stories are just not accurate.  Mr. Know-it-All has the distinction of being the person most often kicked off Wikipedia, so it's just an example of his prowess, and he is …

Dennis: It's my understanding, Bob, that Mr. Know-it-All has been on a crash course taking college courses and attempting to even become the superior know-it-all.

Bob: Well, I think it's accurate to say he has crashed, yes.  He is on the phone with us.  Mr. Know-it-All, welcome to FamilyLife Today.

Mr. Know-it-All:  Hello?

Bob: Yes, Mr. Know-it-All, you're on the air.

Mr. Know-it-All:  Hi, Bob.

Bob: We're glad that you called in today, and we have our friend, Ace Collins, here who was about …

Mr. Know-it-All:  Oh, hi, Ace.

Ace: How ya doin'?

Mr. Know-it-All:  Good, how are you?

Ace: Always enjoy coming back here just to hear one of the most interesting callers I've ever heard in all my life.

Mr. Know-it-All:  Did you get my letter?

Ace: Which one of the four?

Mr. Know-it-All:  Oh, okay, well, let me know what you think.

Bob: Mr. Know-it-All, it's …

Ace: It's great.  It's in the birdcage, and the bird is really enjoying it.


Dennis: Let me ask Mr. Know-it-All – you've done a lot of research into the hymn, "Amazing Grace?"

Mr. Know-it-All:  Mm-hm, a lot.

Dennis: And would you just like to inform our listeners where this song really came from and the real story behind this great hymn?

Mr. Know-it-All: You know, that's interesting.  A lot of people think of that as a hymn, but, you know, it actually didn't start as a hymn, did you know that?  Ace, did you know that?

Ace: I was unaware of that, yeah.

Mr. Know-it-All: It actually started, it was in the 19th century there was a colonel, Colonel Horatio Bafflestone.

Bob: Yes.

Dennis: Horatio?

Bob: Bafflestone.

Dennis: Bafflestone.

Mr. Know-it-All: That's right.  Well, anyway, there was this snowstorm.  It was in New York City, there was this terrible snowstorm, and he was just wandering through the streets and, you know, blinded by the snow, and he thought he was going to die.  Anyway, he heard this sound, and the sound was tap dancing, and he followed that sound to this auditorium, and the tap dancer was the "Amazing Grace Foster."

Bob: Oh, my goodness.  This is …

Mr. Know-it-All: He was saved …

Bob: … this is …

Mr. Know-it-All: … saved by the sound of her tap dancing.

Bob: Through the snowstorm.

Mr. Know-it-All: Amazing Grace Foster, Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost …

Bob: … but now …

Barbara: … in the snowstorm, huh?

Mr. Know-it-All: In the snowstorm.  And then, over time, it sort of changed.

Bob: Thank you, Mr. Know-it-All, thanks for calling in today.  It's so nice to hear from you.

Dennis: Go back to your …

Mr. Know-it-All: Feel free to call me back anytime.

Bob: Yeah, yeah.

Dennis: Go back to your studies.

Mr. Know-it-All: Thank you.

Bob: Ace, what's the real story behind "Amazing Grace."

Ace: Well, you go back to John Newton, and Newton was one of the most despicable characters to ever sail the sea in the 1700s.  He was a man who could out-cuss and out-drink anyone.  He actually ran away from home as a child because his mother could not control him.  He would literally pick fights, and this meanest of the mean was so mean he got kicked off most of his ships he served on and ended up serving on a slave trader, and they only picked the people who had absolutely no class at all to serve on a slave trader, and in the midst of a storm, a hurricane, really, when all of them thought they were going to die, he remembered his mother's prayers and got down on his knees and prayed a prayer and suddenly the seas calmed.  And he promised God at that particular point, "If you will save me, I will turn my life over to You."

 Well, a lot of people make those promises, and Newton was one of the few who actually fulfilled it and went out and became a preacher, and 20 years after the fact wrote his testimony in song, and the song that we know as "Amazing Grace." 

 Now, we sing it to an American melody, not the English melody.  They sing it, took and it's either Virginia harmony or Kentucky harmony.  It's an old folk song, and the last verse, "When we've been there 10,000 years," was added in America. 

 But I think it is really interesting that a man who was on his way to America with a load of slaves found himself freed from the bonds of spiritual slavery through a prayer on that ship and, therefore, that song that was inspired on a slave trader has also probably been responsible for more people coming to know the Lord and being freed from the chains of slavery than any other song.  And, certainly, it is a song you hear a great deal at Thanksgiving.

Bob: It is a song that my mom has said she wants sung at her funeral by my sons. 

Ace: Really?

Bob: It's her favorite hymn, and I think a lot of people would say, "It's my favorite hymn," do you think?

Dennis: I do.  In fact, if you look in the Scripture at Ephesians, chapter 5, and it commands us in verse 18 to be filled with the spirit.  Verse 19 says, "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord."

 Isn't it interesting that one of the first things mentioned as a result of being filled with God's Spirit is hymns or songs that give praise to God.  And I think if there has been a song throughout history that has turned our hearts back to God, it has been that hymn.  I mean, it's now been rearranged in so many different ways by so many different hymn writers and singers and the like, it's just amazing how God uses it even today.

Ace: Well, and realize, back in the '60s, during the Vietnam War, this song went to number 1 on the pop charts when Judy Collins sang it.

Bob: Judy Collins, right.

Ace: So this is a number 1 rock song besides being a great hymn.  And also consider this fact, I found this very unusual – in the movie, the third "Star Trek" movie, they played it at Spock's funeral.  And so, obviously, Christ not only came for us, He came for the Vulcans as well.  It's a situation where that is how universal, though, that song really is, because they pictured it still being an important part of spiritually and spiritual movements 300 years in the future when they wrote that movie.

Bob: Barbara, you love great hymns and songs about America.  Do you want to pick one for Ace to tell us about?

Barbara: Why don't you tell us about "God Bless America?"

Ace: One of the neatest stories in the whole world, and I think this reflects America and what it is better than any other song – the promise of America.  I mean, to picture a young woman who has this dynamic voice.  She's a girl, and she's singing everywhere during the midst of a war bond rally when she's 13 years old she sings, and General Pershing hears her and takes her to the White House to President Wilson and said, "Listen to this girl sing."  And Wilson tells this girl, "Whatever you do is you use your God-given talent, it's wonderful."

 And so rather than go on to a logical field, this young woman, when she graduates from high school pursues music, and she eventually makes it to Broadway after working vaudeville.  But the problem is, she's got this great voice but all people see is a 300-pound body.  And so she's the butt of the jokes.  Every night she is the person, the fat lady, they come out and laugh at.  She's the one who has her heart broken on stage each and every night.

 That's an element of this song.

Bob: Now, is she literally the one for whom the line, "It's not over until the fat lady sings?"

Ace: You could honestly probably say that, and she did sing "Over There" for Pershing.  So, I mean, "over" is a thought.  But now let's go back and trace it back before we connect this woman and reveal her identity to the song's writer – Irving Berlin.  He came to the United States with his family as a small boy escaping religious persecution because he was Jewish; came to America as a waiter in Tin Pan Alley and started to get to know people and wrote little ditties, and those little ditties became songs these people used in vaudeville acts and things. 

 And suddenly in the midst of the teens, he became one of the most important songwriters in the country composing musical scores along with George M. Cohan, that really riveted the nation on Broadway.

 Well, he thought it was his duty as an America, because he loved this country so much because it had given him so much in World War II to write a musical that would be performed by troops to raise money for widows and orphans of World War I.

 He wrote it during the dress rehearsal.  He heard all of this music and thought, "Man, this is good.  We've done something special, but the last song is horrible.  It's too sugary, it's too sweet, everybody will laugh at it, it won't fit the mood."  He took that song out of the show before it premiered, put it in a trunk and forgot about it.

 Now, 1938, the fat little girl has grown into Kate Smith and has been saved as a major star because of radio, because it doesn't make any difference what you look like on radio.  They heard her sincerity; they heard her dynamic voice, and she was looking for a song to sing on Armistice Day.  So she sent her agent over to talk to Irving Berlin.  Berlin said, "I think I've got something that might be good for her.  It's an old march tune."  It took him about an hour and a half or two hours to find it in the files.

 They brought it back, Kate Smith heard it, she rearranged it into a ballad, sang it on her Armistice Day show, and it was just supposed to be that – one time only.  The song, of course, was "God Bless America."  The NBC studio phones lit up.  People wanted to hear it again and again and again.  Suddenly, they had to release a record of it to keep up with all the demand.

 Now, think of this.  You have a man who left his country and came to the United States because he was religiously persecuted, so he was rejected by his own country.  You have Kate Smith, who was rejected by show business until radio came along and accepted her, and then you have a song that was deemed not good enough for a Broadway show that suddenly became the hit that many people wanted to use as our national anthem at that particular point.

 You know, so what you have is three different rejected elements coming together as one and suddenly they're not rejected anymore.  And that's really how we come to Christ.  We are rejected, and yet Christ accepts us no matter how we look, no matter where we came from, no matter who we are.

Dennis: And I'm reflecting back a year ago, Ace, on the songs that you spoke about on this broadcast and how a number of them – Bob, you remember this, how a number of them came out of people's lives who had been broke, who were devastated, who were at the end of themselves, and how in that moment of brokenness, God put a melody and truth in their hearts and a great hymn or a great song was birthed out of that brokenness.

Ace: That's true.  Handel's "Messiah" is a classic example of that.

Bob: Mm-hm.  What about the song that we learned in elementary school – "My County 'Tis of Thee."  You don't – are kids still learning that in school the way they did when we were growing up?

Ace: Unfortunately, I don't think they are because most schools don't have music programs anymore, they've been cut out.  Music was a very important part of elementary school, and that's one of the things, like recess, that has been done away with.

 And so they don't sing that like they once did.  But "My Country 'Tis of Thee" goes back to a man who had a very complicated name – Smith – and here's this guy who graduated from Harvard who is now studying at Andover College getting his theology degree.  And one of his professors came back from Germany, a tour of Germany, and fell in love with German anthems.  [Uses German accent] Anthems, you know.  It was all important – anthems.

 Well, in truth, Smith wasn't into the anthems, but he was given the assignment of going through all of these hymnbooks, and if he found something somewhere to use, translate it into English so they could sing it at Andover in the choir.

 He put it off and put it off, and one rainy day when he had nothing else to do, finally went through the hymnbooks and found a hymn that he liked, and when he translated it, he discovered it was about the German queen.  Now, that wouldn't work in America, so he jotted down new words for it, took it to his people, they loved it.  They sang it at Andover and from the choir, and it premiered in Boston.

 Now, this is the 1830s.  We were a new country, lots of excitement going on, and here you have this song that this children's choir is going to sing, and everybody thinks, "This is going to be so great."  The audience, when it was over, didn't say a word.  And after the service was over, they grabbed Smith and said, "How dare you write a song like this.  How dare you take an American anthem and couple it to the British national anthem.  He had never heard "God Save the Queen."  He didn't know the British used it as a national anthem.

 Now, the funny part of the story is at that particular point a huge debate grew out of it, and England didn't appreciate him using their national song, either, because it was their song, and then they found out it had been in a German hymnal 300 years before they had sung it, and it had been in a Prussian hymnal before that, and they hadn't written it, either, okay?  And so both countries started to use it, and this has actually been used by five or six different countries as the melody for their national anthem.  And yet the song that we sing, "My Country 'Tis of Thee," up until probably 1920, was probably used more as a national anthem than any other song that we had, because we didn't have an official national anthem until the 1930s.  And this song was easier to sing, obviously, than "The Star-Spangled Banner," so it was a song that, really, many, many people love to this day, and it's a song that I think is used probably much more in churches than the national anthem.  I think you hear this song in churches probably more than any other patriotic standard.

Bob: One of the great things about all of these patriotic songs is if you get into the later verses – I mean, I think of the later verses in "My Country 'Tis of Thee" – "Our fathers God to thee, author of liberty, of thee we sing.  Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light, protect us by Thy might, great God and King."

Ace: And you wonder, also, when you're thinking about that, how much of an effect that had …

Dennis: Hold it, he missed a couple of words.

Bob: I missed a couple of words – I was doing that from memory.

Dennis: You were, and I was checking you out in print.

Ace: He was singing the Methodist version of that song.


Dennis: It's interesting, though, Ace, as Bob was going through that, and I was reading it, these songs do have their roots in profound truths from Scripture.

Ace: Well, you have the roots there, and most of the writers have their roots there as well, because, you know, let's go back to Smith – student at Andover Seminary, you know, they were immersed in the Bible all the time.  Naturally, when they write, they're going to see things through the eyes of someone who is relishing America's freedom.

Dennis: People of all nations gravitate to great songs from a patriotic standpoint to celebrate their nationality.  I've been in Singapore at what they call football.  I think it's actually something a little different than what we call football, but here we are in America, we sing this song today, and it turns our heart in unison as a group of people around that, and this holiday of Thanksgiving is no different.  It's a great holiday for people's hearts to be turned toward God.

Ace: Exactly.

Dennis: And to sing hymns that honor Him and I remember, Bob, when Barbara first put her book together, "Thanksgiving, a Time to Remember," it included a few hymns the first time around, as I recall, but you went on a search to find some of the great hymns of the faith to include in your book because of this very thing we're talking about here – how we want to unite around hymns of the faith at Thanksgiving.

Barbara: Well, the real reason for including music is, as you said, it's a way for us to put our focus back on the Lord, and Thanksgiving was a time where the pilgrims celebrated God's goodness to them, and they wanted to give thanks.  And so when we have hymns that remind us of God's provision and of God's sovereignty in our lives, and that we need to give thanks to Him, it turns our hearts, and that's what hymns do, and that's why I love them so much – they turn our hearts back to the source of God's goodness.

Bob: There are about 16 hymns on the CD that you have included in the back of the book, "Thanksgiving, A Time to Remember," including "America, the Beautiful."  These are instrumental arrangements of these hymns, and I know we play this at Thanksgiving at our house.  It's just nice to have it as regular, ongoing background music as you tune your heart around the Thanksgiving holiday.

 And to have the CD with the hymns on it and Ace's book, "Stories Behind the Hymns that Inspire America," which you can use for family devotions or you can use just for personal study, it's a great combination.

 We have Ace's book in our FamilyLife Resource Center, and we also have the Thanksgiving book, "Thanksgiving, A Time to Remember," with the music CD in the back of the book.  And any of our listeners that want to get both of the resources together, we will send along at no additional cost, the CD audio of our conversation this week with Ace Collins.

 Go to our website,, and click on the red button that says "Go" in the middle of the page, and that will take you right to a screen where there is more information about how to order the hardback book, "Thanksgiving, A Time to Remember," with the music CD in the back.  Don't get confused now.  There is also an audio CD that is a dramatized version of Barbara's book.  That's not the music CD that we're talking about, that's the audio book, and it's available from our FamilyLife Resource Center as well.

 Go to the website,, click that red button that says "Go," and that will give you all the information you need about the resources that are available, and get copies of these books and have them ready as you prepare for Thanksgiving at your house.  I think these resources will be helpful to get your family's heart pointed in the right direction.

 Again, the website,, click the red button that says "Go," or call us at 1-800-358-6329.  That's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and someone on our team can make arrangements to have any or all of these resources sent out to you.

 By the way, we want to say a quick work of thanks to those of you who help support this ministry financially with donations.  When we talk about the resources that are available, the books and the CDs, all of that is made available in an attempt to try to put quality resources in your hands and in your homes.  But you need to know that the revenue from the sale of those resources does not cover the cost of the ministry of FamilyLife Today and, for that, we're dependent on donations from folks like you.

 So we appreciate it when you are able to make a donation of any amount to this ministry.  It's a part of what keeps us on the air on this station and on stations all across the country, and we always love hearing from you.  So anytime you want to drop us a note to let us know you're listening, that's appreciated as well.

 You can donate online at  You can also call us at 1-800-FLTODAY to make a donation, and let me say thanks in advance for your generosity.

 Well, tomorrow we're going to hear more about some of the stories behind some of the hymns that inspire America.  We're going to hear, for example, the story behind the bugle call, "Taps," if you ever wondered where that came from.  Ace Collins will be here to tell us tomorrow, I hope you'll be with us as well.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.


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