‘O Boundless Salvation’

As thousands of Salvationists prepare to gather this July in London for Boundless – The Whole World Redeeming, I envision delegates singing The Salvation Army’s quintessential hymn, Founder William Booth’s “O Boundless Salvation.”

First designed for the 1893 Boundless Salvation spiritual campaign in Great Britain, the song received musical treatment at pivotal moments in Salvationist history and is still a favorite of congregations today.

Composed in just one, long evening, it was sung to an obscure tune previously connected to an older hymn, “My Jesus, I love Thee.” To this, Booth requested that a popular chorus, in 6/8 time, be added: “The Heavenly gales are blowing.” The premiere came during the Boundless Congress weekend, Nov. 14-15, 1893, in London’s Exeter Hall. This was not Booth’s first song; it was the fourth in a string of popular texts, including “Thou Christ of burning, cleansing flame.”

Currently, “The Song Book of The Salvation Army” contains all seven verses of the anthem. However, that was not always the case. In the first congregational song book (1899-1900), only the text with five verses appears at the bottom of the page in the keyboard edition (#185) below “My Jesus I Love Thee.” A note states: “another song to the above tune,” but with no mention of the added chorus.

Meanwhile in the U.S., in Commander Frederick Booth Tucker’s “Favorite Songs of the Salvation Army,” the song appears under the title “The Heavenly Gales are Blowing.” Commander Evangeline Booth then reprinted it in 1905 in “Popular Songs of the Flag,” again with just five verses. In 1917, as #185 of “Salvation Songs,” it shows up with only four verses, words and music, with no chorus. By the 1930 revised edition of “The Song Book of The Salvation Army” it gained status—placed first, with all seven verses. However, the chorus faded to a memory of older veterans.

Having all seven verses allows the congregation the full impact of Booth’s remarkable progression via a simple, yet profound metaphor—the ocean as the all-encompassing, redeeming love of Christ. Booth proclaimed the gospel message to whosoever—“the whole world redeeming.” The song states up front a “fullness of mercy” available to all. The line then runs from the recognition of sin to salvation gained, and finally, faith strengthened.

Verse two begins with what seems to be a personal confession by the author. You can trace Booth’s use of the first-person singular throughout all seven verses. Also note the final, universal application—“for you and for me!” Booth wished the song to capture as many hearts as possible.

Accounts of the song’s use at key moments in Salvation Army history add something to the hymn’s normal year-in, year-out use within our movement. In his last public appearance on May 9, 1912, Booth led the song before a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall even as he struggled with health problems.

During the 50th anniversary American National Congress, John Philip Sousa conducted a band of over 700 members in “The Salvation Army March” on May 17, 1930. Sousa had been approached by Commander Evangeline Booth to write a march in honor of the event. He dedicated it to her and incorporated “O Boundless Salvation” in the trio or second part of the march.

When first heard at the premiere, thousands of Salvationists broke into spontaneous applause at the sound of that tune. When he first decided to use the tune, Sousa had all seven verses sung to him and declared that General Booth “had been inspired.”

When The Salvation Army celebrated its centenary in 1965, the Royal Albert Hall once again resounded with the anthem, this time in a majestic arrangement by Dean Goffin using the full resources of the International Staff Band, fanfare trumpeters, and the hall’s mighty pipe organ supporting the congregation’s singing. This setting soon became available to all Salvation Army bands worldwide and maintained consistent use until William Himes provided a new, festive arrangement in 1999 for the visit of General John Gowans to the USA Central Territory. This four-verse congregational accompaniment appeared the next year at the Millennial International Congress in 2000 in Atlanta, Ga., and soon appeared in the General Series band journal. Interestingly, Himes lowered the pitch of the melody to make it easier to sing.

Booth’s imagery in this song may seem a remnant of the late Victorian Age. Yet its message of the boundless, redeeming love of Christ will continue to have a lasting impact in worship. Each generation will take the anthem as its own, but the inspiration that first brought forth this compelling hymn will remain.

by Ronald W. Holz

Previous post

Call to our life together

Next post

Running From What We Desire - By Henri J.M. Nouwen