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Reading the Hymns: Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior

May 22nd, 2010 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

This week's selection is from one of evangelicalism's most prolific hymn writers, Fanny Crosby.

Crosby, who was a Methodist, is best known for "Blessed Assurance," which encapsulates the evangelical conviction in the reality of the atonement.  But the other side of the evangelical confidence in the work of Christ is a strong sense of our own lack of worthiness--a sense that in its worst forms slips into anxieties about our union with Christ and the accomplishment of our redemption.

But Crosby avoids that sort of anxiety, crafting lyrics that manage to highlight our status as adopted by Christ even in and through the expression of repentence.  (It's worth noting that Red Mountain Church's contemporary rendition of the song is the best I know, and worth spending 89 cents on.)

Musically, "Pass Me Not" is a classic representative of what seems to be a distinctly American hymn style.  It has a striking simplicity and stays within the much decried four chord structure of contemporary praise choruses.  But the alternating meter of the tune--from syncopation to straight and back again--give it a subtle complexity that today's rock-inspired music lacks. Consider the first stanza:

Pass me not, Oh Gentle Savior.  Hear my humble cry.
While on others Thou art smiling, do not pass me by.

The  "me" happens to fall on a syncopated note that shortens it relative to the "pass not."   Which is precisely how it should be--the central concern is the invocation, and only secondarily our status in light of it.  And not surprisingly, it is "Hear" that lands on the longer note, giving it a sense of emphasis that the other more syncopated lines lack.   "Savior" is appropriately drawn out relative to the rest of the clause, as it will be again in the refrain.  And the final clase has a sort of insistent pleading to it:  "Do. Not. Pass. Me. By."

This sort of subtle emphasis keeps up through the whole song, in what amounts to an excellent marriage of form and content.  One final point on this:  we might expect lyrics like this to be accompanied by the minor keys we typically associate with sadness and repentence.  And occasionally, they should.  But the lighthearted and uplifting tune suggests something else:  carried within the pleading is the answer, and the answer is yes and amen.  Such are the grounds for the hope that the tune carries us to.

Savior, Savior, Hear my humble cry.
While on others Thou art calling, do not pass me by.

Here, in our concern to not be overlooked, we meet Jesus as Savior and nothing else.  There is an affirmation here--he really is calling others.  And because we have seen and heard him call others as Savior, we have confidence in our invocation:  he will hear because we have called him Savior and not tyrant.

Let me at Thy throne of mercy find a sweet relief,
Kneeling there in deep contrition; Help my unbelief.

Of course, the prayer is offered only in the context of a prior belief--else why ask for help, and that before the throne?  "The faith, the hope, the love are all in the waiting" says our friend T.S. Eliot.  But Eliot was wrong:  the faith, hope, and love are all in the kneeling and asking.

Trusting only in Thy merit, would I seek Thy face;
Heal my wounded, broken spirit, save me by Thy grace.

Crosby knows precisely where her assurance lies, and it is not in the experience of contrition or the relief we are offered by the cross.  In fact, it is not in experience at all.  All seeking, healing, and even her personal salvation are subsequent to that fact.

Thou the Spring of all my comfort, more than life to me,
Whom have I on earth beside Thee? Whom in Heav’n but Thee?

Whom, indeed.

The existential wrestling with the reality of Christ pervades the song, but never overwhelms it.  Consider the movement of the four stanzas:  it begins with the plea to "pass me not," and proceeds to the plea to "help my unbelief."  But the crisis can be answered by only one thing, "trusting in Thy merit."  It is this that is the spring of all our comfort, that relativizes all else to us and allows us to say "Thou only," Oh Lord.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.