Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Robert Robinson, 1758
Addressed to God
Come, thou fount of ev’ry blessing,Jer. 2:13; John 7:37–39
   tune my heart to sing thy grace;Ps. 87:7; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16
streams of mercy, never ceasing,Zech. 13:1; John 4:14
   call for songs of loudest praise.Ps. 150:5; Rom. 15:9
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
   sung by flaming tongues above;Ps. 104:4
praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,Ps. 40:2; 62:2; 95:1
   mount of God’s unchanging love.Ps. 36:5
Here I raise my Ebenezer;1 Sam. 7:12
   hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
   safely to arrive at home.Gen. 15:16; 28:15; Zech. 10:10; John 14:2–3
Jesus sought me when a stranger,Luke 19:10; Eph. 2:12; Col. 1:21
   wand’ring from the fold of God:Ezek. 34:16
he, to rescue me from danger,Ex. 12:13, 23
   interposed his precious blood.Gen. 22:8; 1 Peter 1:19
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
   daily I’m constrained to be;
let that grace now, like a fetter,Rom. 6:15–18
   bind my wand’ring heart to thee.Ps. 119:10
Prone to wander—Lord, I feel it—Rom. 7:15–24
   prone to leave the God I love:
here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it,1 Kings 8:58; Ps. 62:8; 2 Cor. 1:22
   seal it for thy courts above.

“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is not a great hymn. “From the literary point of view it is execrable,” wrote the eminent hymnologist Erik Routley, who objected to its rhymes. (Technically, “blessing” and “ceasing” do not rhyme. Nor do “grace” and “praise.”) Some of the imagery and theology is confusing. The metaphors in stanza 1, for example, seem mixed. How can a fount tune something? Then, why, in line 7, are we urging one another to praise a mountain? Stanza 3 poses an even more difficult riddle, since the whole concept of a debtor to grace contradicts itself (compare Col. 2:14). With study and the benefit of the doubt, one can answer these questions, it is true, but the need to search for answers diminishes the text’s communicativeness in a congregational setting.

And yet “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is still a good hymn. Upon reflection it becomes clear that stanza 1 does not mix its metaphors. Just as there is in the rilling waters of a fountain a kind of music that can influence human music (one thinks of Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este), so too, figuratively, the living waters of divine mercy cause human hearts to sing. It turns out that “Come, Thou Fount” does much the same thing in prayer that “Amazing Grace” does in testimony. It communicates the singer’s need for, and wonder at, God’s past, present, and future grace to him. The past is treated in stanza 2, the present is treated in stanza 3, and the future (alluded to at the end of stanza 3) was originally treated in a fourth stanza, now omitted. Stanza 1, then, functions in this scheme as an invocation of the muse: the singer asks for divine aid as he prepares to “sing thy grace.” The Christian’s “muse” is, of course, God himself. (In the person of the Holy Spirit? Note the water imagery.) It brings to mind the invocations found in certain Psalms (43:3–4; 51:15) and the beginning of Paradise Lost, with its similar focus on waters (“Siloa's Brook that flow'd fast by the Oracle of God”) and mountains (Oreb, Sinai, and Sion Hill).

Thus, the hymn follows a coherent structure, even as it provides the singer with opportunities to say certain important things that no other well-known hymn does: to begin with a request for assistance in singing the song, to develop a biblical symbol that seems ready-made for song (an Ebenezer, or memorial, raised on the mount of God’s love in stanza 2), and to plead the singer’s utter and daily dependence on grace in the extraordinary, if thoroughly biblical, imagery of slavery (“let that grace now, like a fetter, bind my wand’ring heart to thee”).

The worthy tune NETTLETON reinforces the sense of the text when the repetitive melody of lines 1–4 erupts, after a “call for songs of loudest praise,” into an entirely different kind of melody in lines 5–6. The “melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above,” although related, is different in every way from what comes before: different in range, different in rhythm, and different in pitch structure (because the occurrence of the seventh scale degree, “ti,” effects a shift from pentatonic thinking to diatonic thinking). The contrast is equally successful in projecting the ardent explanations of lines 5–6 in stanza 2 (“Jesus sought me when a stranger”) and stanza 3 (“Prone to wander—Lord I feel it”). But the best thing about this contrast is how it makes the return to the opening melody at the beginning of line 7, with its headmotif mi–re–do, exquisitely reassuring. This melodic return highlights the internal rhyme between lines 1 and 7 in stanza 1 (fount/mount) and the similarity of sound in stanza 2 (“here I raise” and “he, to res-”). Ultimately, it cradles the concluding declaration of the entire poem (“here’s my heart”).

Let us close by considering the question implied at the start of this study. Can a merely good, but not great, hymn support the sort of congregational utterance of biblical truth that we advocated in the “Biblical Model” part of this website? Always bearing in mind the proper purpose of congregational song and the common pitfalls enumerated in section 6, the answer must be yes. It can. Whatever its flaws, a good hymn will still unfold a biblical train of thought in strong but simple poetry. If it is sung in a genuinely congregational idiom by Christians who worship with their hearts, then all relevant biblical principles have been observed. If, on the other hand, a hymn is designed and selected according to how it pleases us musically or musically moves our emotions, something will be missing, no matter how effectively it achieves those ends. If our priorities differ from the Bible’s, hearts will be tuned by something other than the fount of every blessing.