Story Behind the Hymn ‘Higher Ground’
Written by Admin on August 27, 2023
Today we look at the story of the hymn Higher Ground. Johnson Oatman Jr. (1856–1922) was one of the most prolific gospel songwriters of his day—with some 7000 texts to his credit. Hymnary.org includes more than 1,150 texts found in various collections. “There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus” (“No, Not One”) was the most published song, and “When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed” (“Count Your Blessings”), the third most published song. “Higher Ground” is the second most published song.
Oatman Jr. was a New Jersey native whose father, Johnson Oatman Sr., had a fine voice and enjoyed sitting young Johnson by his side as he sang songs in church. His education took place at Herbert’s Academy (Vincentown, New Jersey) and the New Jersey Collegiate Institute (Bordentown). For many years, the Oatmans worked together in the mercantile business in Lumberton, New Jersey, under the name Johnson Oatman & Son. Upon his father’s death, Oatman Jr. entered the life insurance business, working for a company in Mt. Holly, New Jersey.
Oatman married Wilhelmina Reid of Lumberton in 1878. His interest in hymn writing coincided with his early retirement due to ill health in 1892. Oatman and Wilhelmina had a son and two daughters. Wilhelmina died in 1909. Oatman’s younger daughter was married at the bedside of her invalid mother. Oatman Jr. died at the home of his elder daughter in Norman, Oklahoma, in 1922. He was buried in Lumberton, New Jersey.
Johnson Oatman Jr. joined the Methodist Episcopal Church at age nineteen and received a license to preach a few years later, serving as a local preacher. As hymnology biographer J.H. Hall observed, “Withal, Brother Oatman is a firm believer in the good old doctrine of the Wesleyan theolog.” (Hall, 1914, p. 359).
Oatman collaborated with some of the leading tune writers of his era including John R. Sweney (1837–1899), Edwin O. Excell (1851–1921), and William J. Kirkpatrick (1838–1921). “Higher Ground,” one of Oatman’s early songs, was written in 1892 and set to music the same year by Charles H. Gabriel (1856–1932), noted for his teaching, publishing endeavors, and compositions, with hundreds of tunes and texts that were promoted in the famous urban crusades by Billy Sunday and Homer Rodeheaver in the early twentieth century.
The song was sold to Philadelphia songbook compiler J. Howard Entwisle, who included it in three collections in 1898: Gospel Hosannas, Praise Hymns and Full Salvations Songs, and Songs of Love and Praise, No. 5, compiled by Sweney, Frank M. David, and Entwisle (See https://hymnary.org/hymn/SLP51898/page/79).
The primary “hook” of the song is “higher ground,” words that would be repeated eight times in all—at the end of each stanza and in the refrain. Hymnologist Chris Fenner notes that Philippians 3:13b–14 provides a biblical basis for this theme: “forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (KJV). Additional passages include Psalm 18:33, Isaiah 58:14, Micah 4:1–2, and Psalms of ascent (120–134) [Fenner, 2020, n.p.].