The Church’s One Foundation

Samuel J. Stone, 1866
Based on article 9 of the Apostles’ Creed
Addressed to one another and then to God
The church’s one foundation1 Cor. 3:11
   is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is his new creationGal. 6:15
   by water and the Word:Eph. 5:25–27
from heav’n he came and sought herJohn 3:13
   to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,Ps. 74:2; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20
   and for her life he died.
Elect from ev’ry nation,Rev. 5:9
   yet one o’er all the earth,John 10:16; 17:21; 1 Cor. 12:12
her charter of salvation
   one Lord, one faith, one birth;Eph. 4:5
one holy name she blesses,Acts 4:12
   partakes one holy food,1 Cor. 10:17
and to one hope she presses,Eph. 4:4
   with ev’ry grace endued.Eph. 4:7
Though with a scornful wonder2 Pet. 2:2
   men see her sore oppressed,Ex. 1:13
by schisms rent asunder,1 Cor. 11:18–19
   by heresies distressed,Titus 1:10–11
yet saints their watch are keeping,1 Pet. 4:7
   their cry goes up, “How long?”Ps. 74:9–10; Rom. 8:23
And soon the night of weepingPs. 30:5
   shall be the morn of song.Is. 51:11
The church shall never perish!Matt. 16:18
   Her dear Lord to defend,
to guide, sustain, and cherish,Is 58:11
   is with her to the end;Matt. 28:20
though there be those that hate her,1 John 3:13
   and false sons in her pale,Gal. 2:4
against or foe or traitorMic. 7:8
   she ever shall prevail.
’Mid toil and tribulation,Rom. 8:35–37
   and tumult of her war,Eph. 6:12
she waits the consummationRom. 16:20
   of peace forevermore;
till with the vision glorious1 John 3:2
   her longing eyes are blest,2 Cor. 5:2
and the great church victorious
   shall be the church at rest.Heb. 4:9
Yet she on earth hath union1 John 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14
   with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communionHeb. 12:22–23
   with those whose rest is won:
oh, happy ones and holy!Jude 24
   Lord, give us grace that we,
like them, the meek and lowly,1 Pet. 5:6
   on high may dwell with thee.

If you’ve been a Christian any length of time you’ve experienced it: disappointment with the church. You may be disappointed at a shepherd’s negligence, a cliquish culture in the flock, endless squabbling in the denomination over something about which there should be no disagreement, theological or missional drift at the seminary, or the splintering of Christians worldwide into ever more factions. The possibilities for malaise, misunderstanding, scandal, and outright betrayal are endlessly diverse not just because the church is made up of so many different people but because it’s a mixture. There are false professions of faith alongside the genuine. True doctrine mixes with error. Above all, there is a mixture of sin and holiness in the heart of every church member.

The early fathers were fond of presenting Noah’s ark as a type for the church. Today it has become a well-worn quip: the stench inside would be unbearable if it weren’t for the storm outside.

The hymn before us does something that most hymns about the church (say, for example, “Onward, Christian Soldiers”) do not. In its internal stanzas it acknowledges the messiness of church life. It speaks of oppression, schisms, heresies, hatred,[1] false sons, toil, tribulation, and the tumult of her war. But it counters this acknowledgement with a sweeping affirmation of that doctrine which alone should dispel our disappointment: the doctrine of the unity of the church. Though the body be diverse in its members, it’s a diversity united by one head into a single organism. Or, to employ the architectural metaphor from the beginning of the hymn, the church has many different rooms that all belong together because they share a single foundation. The mixture that contaminates the visible church—though real and grievous—cannot actually undermine God’s plans for it, because its head is preeminent in everything, and its foundation is unshakable. Jesus’s petition in his high priestly prayer, “that they may be one,” was a petition granted even as it was uttered, “they” being “in” him (John 17:21).

Thus the tumultuous stanzas 3–5 are prefaced by stanza 2, which repeats the word “one” seven times—the number of perfection—to the same rhetorical effect as that achieved by Paul in Ephesians 4:4–6. Stanzas 3–5 are also followed by a stanza on the communion of the saints (Latin, com + unio, “union with”). It’s a unity that need not wait until the vision glorious of stanza 5, when the church victorious shall be the church at rest. “The Church’s One Foundation” reverses the climactic strategy encountered in other hymns, where talk of this life typically leads to a promise of heaven (see, for example, “My Jesus I Love Thee” or “Amazing Grace”). Here, stanzas 5 and 6 switch things around. Having mentioned heaven, we briefly return to earth. We already enjoy, in this life (st. 6), communion with those whose rest is won (harking back to st. 5).

The versification is ideal for a congregational song. Every one of the (relatively short) lines participates in the rhyme scheme, so that every third accented syllable chimes with another to wonderfully memorable effect. Alliteration is used to connect related ideas: water–word, blood–bought, scornful–schisms, toil–tribulations–tumult, happy–holy.


A fine tune, AURELIA, like any other can be ruined by singing it too often or at an inappropriate tempo. But when handled prudently the combined effect of words and music is impressively communicative. Abundant contrasts between tumult and union call for music of some complexity. Note the complexity of the harmony in particular, especially in lines 3 and 6–7 (that is, measures 5–6, 11–12, and 14).

The repeated-note gesture of the opening develops in two different ways: into a rhythmic, descending variant at the end of line 1 (“foundation”) and into the two Ds at the beginning of line 2 (“is Je-”). See the accompanying diagram, where the one is identified by a rectangle and the other by an oval.

Scales also assume some importance, in line 2 and at the juncture between lines 3 and 4. At the midpoint of the stanza, line 5, we get a scale that goes the other direction. The next line, line 6, is the most rhythmically interesting, and its initial musical gesture combines elements from both the three-note descending idea (rectangles in the diagram) and the pairs of Ds (ovals in the diagram). Its minor chords make sense for the words “cry” in stanza 3, “false sons” in stanza 4, and “longing” in stanza 5.

How does a tune that reaches its highest note so early, in lines 3 and 6, avoid anticlimax? By returning to, and transforming, its opening music. Measure 13, while identical to measure 1, leads to the greatest dissonance of the whole song, on the most appropriate of words.

Stanza 1: bought her
Stanza 2: presses
Stanza 3: weeping
Stanza 4: traitor
Stanza 6: lowly

After the resolution of this dissonance, the eighth line, the lowest in pitch, begins with the paired Ds back in their original octave and concludes with the tune’s only perfect authentic cadence. As the poem brilliantly structures the sense of every stanza to end with the most moving declaration (“and for her life he died ,” “with ev’ry grace endued,” etc.), so the melody here provides a strikingly original setting for it.


[1] The Trinity Hymnal is unusual in including six stanzas. Almost all others omit “The church shall never perish!” It’s good to sing this stanza, but hymnal editors would do well to consider ways to clarify its syntax and the archaic “pale.” In the mean time, a word of explanation from worship leaders could help congregations sing with understanding.