the story behind whiter than snow

Easter: The Story Behind “Whiter Than Snow”

Hi, friends. This is the third and final installment of this Easter’s “Story Behind” posts, in which we’ve discovered the stories behind old hymns and related the lyrics to our focus theme–sacrifice and redemption.

The Story Behind the Hymn

The story behind this hymn is not as coincidental as “Jesus Paid It All” or as ironic as “Victory in Jesus.” On the contrast, minimal information can be found about this song and its author (at least on Google).

Members of United Methodist Women serve lunch to hungry people at the Community Kitchen in Columbus, Ohio (5/18).

In the late 1800’s, James L. Nicholson was born in Ireland, and he emigrated to America around age 25. He made his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and began attending Wharton Street Methodist Episcopal Church. No personal details about him are recorded; all we know is that he was an adamant lay servant–teaching Sunday School classes, assisting in ministry, etc. He penned this song around 1871.

Though this story is not shocking or intriguing, Nicholson reminds me of myself and many of my readers. We are Sunday School teachers, small-town pastors, worship leaders, behind-the-scenes cleaner-uppers, volunteer workers (like the pic above), you name it. We are simple but zealous people sharing our lives, testimonies, devotionals, etc. with the world through online and offline ministry.

Reflections on the Theme

I saved this song for last because, while I love the lyrics of all three hymns featured this year, these are the richest in regards to our theme of redemption and sacrifice. Even the name of the hymn alludes to what Jesus has done for us–in becoming a divine sacrifice, He enabled the total redemption of sin in humans.

The song has a lovely air of humility. We have been pondering the “return sacrifice” that we are called to make when we accept salvation, and the lyrics brim with sacrifices the author will make for the Lord along with pleas for the Lord’s guidance–

  • “I want Thee forever to live in my soul”
  • “Break down every idol, cast out every foe”
  • “I all things forego”
  • “Help me to make a complete sacrifice”
  • “I give up myself and whatever I know”
  • “Within me a new heart create”

Let’s examine the ordering of these statements. The speaker says that he wants the Lord to live forever in his soul, then she offers to sacrifice herself in different ways, then he beckons the Lord to give him a new heart. [I used both gender pronouns to include men and women.]

If we want the Lord to “forever live in our souls,” we have to let Him “break down our idols,” and we have to “give up ourselves.” Here are just a few common idols–

  • Love of petty gossip
  • Excessive idleness (Ex: playing video games or watching Netflix for several hours every day)
  • Love of judging and condemning groups of people
  • Inflexible loyalty to a political party or other social group
  • Superior pride in one’s accomplishments/family/education/etc.
  • Unwillingness to stop eating tons of junk food despite morbid obesity
  • Obsession with one’s social media persona or with WordPress stats

If we read the Word, pray fervently, and intentionally live in the Spirit, the Lord will help us “break down those idols” and “give up what we know.” It’s called “pruning” and it hurts, like growing pains.

We finally come to the last statement on the list–“Within me a new heart create.” After our initial pruning, when we decide to really live into God’s love for us and His call to partnership with Christ, the Lord can begin to create a new heart in us, transforming us into new creations.

Though we will never be completely without sin, we live as new creations and trust that we have been washed “whiter than snow.”

Lyrics

Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want Thee forever to live in my soul;
Break down every idol, cast out every foe—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Refrain:
Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow,
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, let nothing unholy remain,
Apply Thine own blood and extract every stain;
To get this blest cleansing, I all things forego—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, look down from Thy throne in the skies,
And help me to make a complete sacrifice;
I give up myself, and whatever I know—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, for this I most humbly entreat,
I wait, blessed Lord, at Thy crucified feet,
By faith for my cleansing, I see thy blood flow—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, Thou see’st I patiently wait;
Come now and within me a new heart create;
To those who have sought Thee, Thou never said’st “No”—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

The blessing by faith, I receive from above;
Oh, glory! my soul is made perfect in love;
My prayer has prevailed, and this moment I know,
The blood is applied, I am whiter than snow.

I was shocked at how few renditions of this song were available on YouTube. Here is one of the prettiest versions I found.

Thanks for reading! Have a Happy Easter, remembering the sacrifice Jesus made for our redemption while pondering the “return sacrifice” we also make–devoting our hearts and lives to God and spreading His kingdom on Earth, reflecting the grace of Jesus Christ as we do so.

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