Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus: The Story Behind the Hymn

Isabella Lilias Trotter (1853–1928)

This devotional hymn was written in 1918 by Helen Lemmel, an accomplished hymnwriter and soloist, the daughter of a Methodist Minister. She was moved to write the words and music after reading a small booklet by Lilias Trotter entitled “Focussed” and hearing of her life story. She titled the hymn “The Heavenly Vision” but it is best known by the first line of the refrain, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus”.

Both the hymn and the booklet that inspired it have been a challenge to the focus and devotion of Christians over almost a century. The life of Lilias Trotter is of great interest. Her own devotion to her Saviour, faith and labour of love speak volumes in our day of easy going Christianity.

In her biography of Lilias Trotter, Patricia St John describes the home life into which Lilias was born in 1853 as, “… the happy disciplined life of the Victorian upper classes; godly, serious, kind to the poor… sheltered… a stable home surrounded by beauty and culture.” Lilias wanted for nothing. She had a good education, travelled widely, she had a bright and inquisitive mind and loved the beauty of plants, flowers and nature. Her father was a wealthy banker and they lived in high society in the very best part of London.

Sadly, when Lilias was only 12 years old, her Father died and she was devastated at this great loss. However it was through this time of sadness that she was cast upon God for comfort and consolation and came to know Jesus Christ as her Saviour and friend. One biographer says that, “Through the very hardest thing in her life God brought her soul into blossom.” The change in her life through her conversion to Christ saw her develop a great gift of love and sympathy that was boundless in its expression.

As she grew into a young woman, that love for others was channelled into work in London with the YWCA among many unfortunate women who found themselves alone, penniless and exploited.

At the age of 23 she travelled with her mother to Venice and by God’s providence came into contact with John Ruskin, the famous writer and art critic. Ruskin was tremendously impressed with her ability to draw and paint and she spent time in his company at his home in the English Lake District. He was convinced that, “if she would give her life to painting she could become the greatest painter of the nineteenth century and do things that would be immortal.”

After the death of her mother in 1878 and considerable wrestling of heart, Lilias became convinced that God was calling her to serve Him. Interest in foreign missions was high following the Moody and Sankey missions and the remarkable commitment of seven Cambridge graduates to pioneer missionary work in China. It was at a missionary meeting that she felt the clear call of God to go to bring the Gospel to the Arab tribes of Algeria.

Despite a heart condition diagnosed prior to her departure, on the 5th March 1888 she left for North Africa and spent the remaining 40 years of her life working among the Arab Muslims of Algeria. Her work was truly remarkable. As a European white woman working mainly with other female colleagues in a pioneer mission among strongly traditional Muslims, the chances of her achieving any success were considered impossible. One biographer remarks that two words characterize Lilias’s work “inexhaustible and indiscourageable”.

Eventually using up all of her own wealth, she founded and maintained the Algiers Mission Band. Her ability in drawing and painting became an integral part in the communication of the gospel, illustrating tracts and booklets specifically designed to reach the Arab culture. Her incredible ability to learn languages, breakdown cultural barriers, organise, write and travel long distances across difficult terrain put her into the same category as other “unique” female missionary names such as Amy Carmichael, Gladys Aylward etc.

An extract from her booklet “Focussed”, which inspired this hymn, is quoted below and in reading it we might ask ourselves just how focussed on Jesus Christ we are today. How great is our need to turn our eyes fully upon Him.

“… if the Sun of Righteousness has risen upon our hearts, there is an ocean of grace and love and power lying all around us, an ocean to which all earthly light is but a drop, and it is ready to transfigure us…Gathered up, focussed lives, intent on one aim – Christ – these are the lives on which God can concentrate blessedness. It is “all for all” by a law as unvarying as any law that governs the material universe.

We see the principle shadowed in the trend of science; the telephone and the wireless in the realm of sound, the use of radium and the ultra violet rays in the realm of light. All these work by gathering into focus currents and waves that, dispersed, cannot serve us. In every branch of learning and workmanship the tendency of these days is to specialize – to take up one point and follow it to the uttermost.

And Satan knows well the power of concentration; if a soul is likely to get under the sway of the inspiration, “this one thing I do,” he will turn all his energies to bring in side-interests that will shatter the gathering intensity.

And they lie all around, these interests. Never has it been so easy to live in half a dozen good harmless worlds at once – art, music, social science, games, the following of some profession, and so on. And between them we run the risk of drifting about, the “good” hiding the “best” even more effectually than it could be hidden by downright frivolity with its smothered heart-ache at its own emptiness.

It is easy to find out whether our lives are focussed, and if so, where the focus lies. Where do our thoughts settle when consciousness comes back in the morning? Where do they swing back when the pressure is off during the day? Does this test not give the clue? Then dare to have it out with God – and after all, that is the shortest way. Dare to lay bare your whole life and being before Him, and ask Him to show you whether or not all is focussed on Christ and His glory. Dare to face the fact that unfocussed, good and useful as it may seem, it will prove to have failed of its purpose.

What does this focussing mean? Study the matter and you will see that it means two things – gathering in all that can be gathered, and letting the rest drop…

Are we ready for a cleavage to be wrought through the whole range of our lives… All aims, all ambitions, all desires, all pursuits – shall we dare to drop them if they cannot be gathered sharply and clearly into the focus of “this one thing I do”?

Will it not make life narrow, this focussing? In a sense, it will – just as the mountain path grows narrower, for it matters more and more, the higher we go, where we set our feet – but there is always, as it narrows, a wider and wider outlook, and purer, clearer air. Narrow as Christ’s life was narrow, this is our aim; narrow as regards self-seeking, broad as the love of God to all around. Is there anything to fear in that?

And in the narrowing and focussing, the channel will be prepared for God’s power – like the stream hemmed between the rock-beds, that wells up in a spring – like the burning glass that gathers the rays into an intensity that will kindle fire. It is worthwhile to let God see what He can do with these lives of ours, when “to live is Christ.”

Turn full your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him, and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him, and the Divine “attrait” by which God’s saints are made, even in this 20th century, will lay hold of you. For “He is worthy” to have all there is to be had in the heart that He has died to win”.

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

O soul, are you weary and troubled?
No light in the darkness you see?
There’s light for a look at the Saviour,
And life more abundant and free!

Refrain:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Through death into life everlasting
He passed, and we follow Him there;
O’er us sin no more has dominion—
For more than conquerors we are!

(Refrain)

His Word shall not fail you—He promised;
Believe Him, and all will be well:
Then go to a world that is dying,
His perfect salvation to tell!

(Refrain)

Words & music by Helen Howarth Lemmel based on the writing of Isabella Lilias Trotter (1853–1928) – pioneer Christian missionary to the Arab Muslims of Algeria & founder of what is now known as Arab World Ministries

The Story Behind the Hymn: Amazing Grace

The life of John Newton is definitely one worth reading about!

His background is one of the sea and a number of his hymns reflect back to those days of childhood and early manhood when he sailed the perilous oceans in the great sailing ships of the 18th Century. His father was a naval captain and young John saw little of him. His mother was the greatest influence on his life, teaching him Bible stories, singing hymns and praying for his salvation while he sat on her knee.

Newton’s world fell apart when his mother died just before his seventh birthday and he descended into a life of total wretchedness and sin. Having been ‘press ganged’ into the navy he rebelled against all authority. He would curse and swear, was violent and his behaviour was so bad that he was abandoned in West Africa, living as a slave at the mercy of a despicable slave trader and his African wife.

Remarkably he was rescued and was making his way home, when on the night of 10th March 1748 a terrible storm almost totally wrecked the ship. Newton was strapped to the wheel of the ship endeavouring to steer a course through the storm. He cried out to God in fear and desperation for salvation. All the prayers, hymns and Bible verses he had learned those years before on his mother’s knee came flooding back to his mind. This was the beginning of Newton coming to full assurance of his salvation in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.

Years later in grateful service to God he served as a Curate to a Church in Olney in Buckinghamshire (and later as Rector to a Church in London). It was while at Olney that many of Newton’s most well known hymns were written and the famous book of, “Olney Hymns” composed by Newton and his good friend William Cowper. One of those hymns was, “Amazing Grace”.

Newton’s biographer, Jonathan Aitken, takes up the story of this lovely hymn in his book, “John Newton, From Disgrace to Amazing Grace”:

“John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’ is the most sung, most recorded and most loved hymn in the world. No other song, spiritual or secular, comes close to it in terms of numbers of recordings, (over 3,000 in the United States alone), frequency of performances (it is publicly sung at least 10 million times a year), international popularity across six continents or cultural longevity (238 years and going strong)…..Yet among the billions of people who have enjoyed singing or listening to it, remarkably few have any knowledge of its origins, purposes,
consequences or history.

“Amazing Grace” was conceived by Newton in late December 1772 as part of the preparations he was making for a New Year’s Day sermon to his parishioners on January 1, 1773. The notion of writing a hymn in order to prepare for a sermon would have been alien to most eighteenth-century clergymen, but Newton was an ingenious innovator in this field of spiritual communication. In the previous two years he had been experimenting with the highly unusual activity (for a Church of England incumbent) of writing “People’s Hymns.” This activity stemmed from Newton’s realization that the principal religious books of the established church, the King James Bible and 1662 Book of Common Prayer, were full of words and phrases that uneducated people found difficult to understand.

As his Olney congregation consisted largely of lace-makers, agricultural labourers, malting’s workers, blacksmiths, carpenters and other artisans or tradesmen, Newton thought he could help them to understand the Scriptures if he amplified his sermons by writing simply worded hymns that illustrated the biblical passages on which he was preaching.

At the beginning of his curacy in Olney, Newton used the hymns of other writers such as Isaac Watts or John and Charles Wesley for this purpose. The first recipients of this biblical teaching through hymns had been the children of the parish……When Newton realized how effective the singing and learning by heart of hymns could be as a spiritual teaching aid for children, he expanded the practice to the adult members of his congregation….Although the hymn singing there proved popular, it was only occasionally extended into Olney church itself, rather than prayer meetings during the week, because the eighteenth-century Church of England frowned upon anything other than metrical Psalms (the Psalms set to song meters) being sung within consecrated buildings.

There was a particular reason why Newton might have chosen January 1, 1773 as a date on which to expound on God’s grace. He was in the habit of regarding every New Year’s Day as a milestone for spiritual stock taking. Newton’s diary notes for his sermon in Olney Church on this New Year’s Day show that he developed the theme of his December 31 diary entry. For he began by emphasizing the importance of being grateful to God for his past mercies. Then he asked the same rhetorical question that David had asked some three thousand years earlier: “Who am I, Lord?”

Newton’s answer took on autobiographical overtones clearly echoed in his just written hymn. For he declared that unconverted sinners were blinded by the ‘god of this world’ (Satan) until “God’s mercy came to us not only undeserved but undesired…… our hearts endeavoured to shut him out till He overcame us by the power of grace.”

Newton’s own words sum up his amazement at God’s grace in the salvation of sinners, particularly to him!

“When I get to heaven, I shall see three wonders there – the first wonder will be to see many people there whom I did not expect to see; the second wonder will be to miss many people whom I did expect to see; and the third and greatest wonder of all will be to find myself there!” 

John Newton’s own epitaph on a plaque in Olney Churchyard:

JOHN NEWTON, Clerk

Once an infidel and libertine A servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Gospel which he had long laboured to destroy. He ministered, near sixteen years as curate of this Parish, and twenty-eight years as Rector of St Mary Woolnoth.

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

John Newton 1725 – 1807