Just ten days before his death, Pastor Ernest Fremont Tittle informed his Evanston, IL United Methodist congregation that while Christianity brings pain it is first and foremost a religion of joy. Tittle recalled the persecution experienced by Christians of the first century – poor, cruelly harassed, but notably happy. By the third century, Tittle concluded, a Christian could say “The church is the one thing in the world that always rejoices.”
That religious movement known as the Church of God, Anderson, IN has sung about this for the past one-hundred thirty years. Sixteen-year-old Barney Warren, one of four brothers who became ministers, attended revival services deep in southwest Michigan where he observed this joy in the revival movement of southwest Michigan under Joseph C. Fisher, Daniel Warner, and others. He eventually experienced what he later described as “Joy Unspeakable” through his own conversion in the mid-1880s.
He consequently received his father’s permission and travelled with a musical ensemble accompanying evangelist Daniel S. Warner. Barney began by singing bass in that gospel group and that led him into a life of musical evangelism. He never again lived near the Lake Michigan shoreline, but he served a long and fruitful life as preacher-pastor, composer-poet and popular song evangelist and prolific song writer of more than seven thousand pieces.
Characteristically, Barney’s music described unspeakable joy and the glory of the Christian life joined harmoniously in walking with Christ. When sung by faithful believers, Barney’s music produced a symphony of choral joy.
I never met Barney (1867-1951). We began our lives no more than five miles apart in that small community but we were separated by the years. Barney preceded me by more than five decades, dying the year I entered pastoral ministry. As a boy in church, his name topped multiplied pages of that old green hymnal from which we all sang. I knew him only as the “Chief Singer,”1 but his lyrics fortified my life from that time forward and they continue directing me in my declining years of life and ministry.
“Joy Unspeakable” still remains one of Barney’s most beloved hymns. In it, he assures me that the Grace of God’s is much more than mere soft soap; it is vastly superior to the cleansing powers of that liquid I squirt into my dishwater whenever I wash my dishes. His inspired words remind me that
I have found His grace is all complete,
He supplieth ev’ry need;
While I sit and learn at Jesus’ feet,
I am free, yes free indeed.
It is joy unspeakable and full of glory,
Full of glory, fully of glory;
It is joy unspeakable and full of glory,
O the half has never yet been told.2
Barney Warren’s joy-filled songs reinforce my Bible reading and teach me that at the very core of this great universe in which I live there is deep, abiding, and everlasting joy.
Clement of Alexandria was one of our early church fathers in ancient history; he probably came as close to the truth as anyone ever did when he suggested that a beautiful hymn to God is an immortal man who is being built up in righteousness, and upon whom the oracles of truth have been engraved.
In a world submerged in the grime of ethnic cleansing, genocide, and war, we are challenged by fanatical and self-destructing terrorists that take everyone with them they possibly can. In such times as these, we need to sing a song Barney didn't know we'd need as much as we do, but God did . . .
There’s a theme that is sweet to my mem’ry,
There’s a joy that I cannot express,
“Tis the kingdom of God’s righteousness.
‘Tis a kingdom of peace, it is reigning within,
It shall ever increase in my soul;
We possess it right here when He saves from all sin,
And ‘twill last while the ages shall roll.
1 This title gave voice to a book by Axchie A. Bolitho, To the Chief Singer, A Brief Story of the Work and Influence of Barney E. Warren. (Anderson, IN: Gospel Trumpet Company, 1942).
2 B. E. Warren, “There Is Joy in the Lord,” Worship the Lord. (Anderson: Warner Press, Inc., 1989), p.616.