Story behind Tell Me the Old, Old Story Hymn

Written by on May 21, 2023

INTRO.:  A song about the importance of telling the old gospel story of how Christ died, was buried, and rose again is “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” (#534 in Hymns for Worship Revised, #279 in Sacred Selections for the Church).  The text was written by Arabella Catherine Hankey, who was born at Clapham, England, an elite southwestern suburb of London, on Jan. 12, 1834, the daughter of Thomas Hankey.  Her father was a wealthy English banker and was a member of William Wilberforce’s evangelical “Clapham Sect” of the Church of England, which had worked to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the British Empire.  Known to her family and friends as “Kate,” she became involved in religious work while still in school.  As a young girl, she enthusiastically began teaching a children’s Sunday school in Croydon.  When just eighteen, she organized a Bible study class for shop girls in London factories.

Then, as a result of a trip to South Africa to bring home an invalid brother, Kate became deeply interested in foreign missions, and to that cause, she contributed all the royalties from her various publications in later years, including her Bible Class Teaching and many books of verses.  One such work was a long poem on the life of Christ entitled The Old, Old Story.  In 1864, Kate experienced a serious illness at the age of thirty and later penned the poem in 1866 while recovering.  It was divided into three headings.  The first, “The Story Wanted,” was completed on Jan. 29, 1866, and is the source of this hymn.  The second was “The Story Told,” from which the familiar hymn “I Love to Tell the Story” came.   The third was “The Story Welcomed.”  Originally, Kate provided her own melody for this hymn.

However, a new tune (Evangel or Old Old Story) was composed and the chorus was added in 1867 by William Howard Doane (1832-1915).  That year, he was attending the International Meeting of the Y.M.C.A. in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  Major General Russell, commander of the English forces in Ireland, quoted Hankey’s poem and gave Doane a copy.  One hot summer afternoon, while traveling home on a stagecoach between Glen Falls House and Crawford House in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Doane set down the music.  That night it was sung by his companions in the parlor of the hotel.  First printed as sheet music, the song appeared later that same year in Doane’s Silver Spray, published at Cincinnati.  During her last years, Kate Hankey was active in hospital visitation work at London.  She died at Westminster in London, England, on May 9, 1911.

Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use among churches of Christ,  “Tell Me the Old, Old Story” has appeared in the 1925 edition of the1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, a0nd the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater; the 1965 Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 edited by Tillit S. Teddlie; the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise, all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat; the 2009 Favorite Songs of the Church and the 2010 Songs for Worship and Praise both edited by Robert J. Taylor Jr.; and the 2012 Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs edited by Steve Wolfgang et. al.; in addition to Hymns for Worship and Sacred Selections.

The song expresses the desire to hear the old, old story of Jesus Christ.

I. From stanza 1 we find the desire to hear the story of Christ’s love

Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above,

Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love.

Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,

For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

  1. This story involves things unseen: 2 Cor. 4:18
  2. Of course, Jesus demonstrated His love for us by dying on the cross for our sins: 1 Jn. 3:16
  3. We need to hear this story simply, as to a little child: Matt. 18:

II. From stanza 2 we find the desire to hear the story of Christ’s redemption

Tell me the story slowly, that I may take it in,

That wonderful redemption, God’s remedy for sin.

Tell me the story often, for I forget so soon;

The early dew of morning has passed away at noon.

  1. We must listen carefully so that we can understand this story: Eph. 3:3-5
  2. It tells us that it is only through the blood of Christ that we can have redemption or forgiveness of sin: Eph. 1:7
  3. And we need to be told often so that our minds might be stirred up by way of reminder: 2 Pet. 3:1-2

III. From stanza 3 we find the desire to hear the story of Christ’s salvation

Tell me the story softly, with earnest tones and grave;

Remember I’m the sinner whom Jesus came to save.

Tell me the story always, if you would really be,

In any time of trouble, a comforter to me.

  1. The story should be told with earnest tones and grave because salvation is a serious matter: 1 Pet. 1:10-12
  2. The basic message of first-century Christians was that Jesus came to save sinners: 1 Tim. 1:15
  3. It is this message from God that brings us comfort: 2 Cor. 1:3-4

IV. From stanza 4 (not in HFWR) we find the desire to hear the story of heaven

Tell me the same old story when you have cause to fear

That this world’s empty glory is costing me too dear.

Yes, and when that world’s glory is dawning on my soul,

Tell me the old, old story: “Christ Jesus makes thee whole.”

  1. “This world” refers to life on earth which presents so many dangers to our souls: 1 Jn. 2:15-17
  2. In contrast, “That world” refers to heaven, the ultimate goal which Jesus desires for us: 1 Pet. 1:3-5
  3. And to make it possible, Christ died that we might be made whole: Rom. 5:8

CONCL.:  The chorus then emphasizes the importance of telling the story that it might be heard

Tell me the old, old story,

Tell me the old, old story,

Tell me the old, old story,

Of Jesus and His love.

If I hope to please God here and have a home in heaven, I must continually express the attitude, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story.”


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