Howard “Rusty” Edwards was born in 1955 in Dixon, Illinois. His education career began at Interlochen Arts Academy, Michigan, and then continued at the University of Nebraska. He taught for a short period before graduating Minnesota Luther Northerwstern Seminary with his Masters of Divinity in 1985 and then, five years later, graduating with his Doctorate of Divinity at the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana. After this, he pastored a handful of churches for 27 years. Rev. Edwards also married his wife, Lori, during that time, and they together had two sons.
Over his life, Rev. Edwards has written a large number of hymns, and a couple dozen of them were published in over 70 books and sung on every continent of the globe. In addition to this, he separately published a few hymn collections. Among his various hymns, “Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness” is among the best known, and it is this the one found in our hymnal. This hymn is a song of praise to the One who is our Lord, Savior, Physician, and Redeemer.
While the words may be relatively modern, the tune is less so. The composer, Benjamin Franklin White, was born in South Carolina in the Fall of 1800, the last of twelve children. Interestingly enough, his namesake had died only a decade before his birth! His parents were Robert and Mildred. Sadly, his mother died when he was only seven years old, leaving his father alone to care for five children. His older brother, junior to their father, took young Benjamin into his home and the Baptist church where he worked as the musical clerk. Eleven years later, after his father’s remarriage, Benjamin returned home to his family and they all moved to Spartanburg, SC.
As his family lived in the country where there were regular social gathering, young Benjamin was frequently around all kinds of music of both religious and secular natures. While Benjamin loved to learn, the teachers or resources he needed were not always readily available. That did not hinder him, though, and he found what books he could and became his own teacher, especially in music. Shortly after his twenty-fifth birth, he married Thurza Golightly. They were married for fifty-three years, and together they had nine children.
Over time, Benjamin honed his musical skills and found friends who shared his musical passion, including his dreams to compose a book of hymn tunes. Included among these friendships was Willaim Walker and Elisha King. This second man was both a student and a compiler for their eventual tunebook, published in 1844, called The Sacred Harp. It is in this book that we find the tune for the hymn in question. While various tunes have been used for this hymn, the one found in our hymnal is White’s called BEACH SPRING.
White’s tunes were somewhat unique as they were composed specifically for congregational singing, called “sharp notes.” Because of this, he was known as the “Singing Master.” After his tune book was published, many people came to recognize his work. In some ways, he revolutionized the way songbooks were designed. A year later, he got together a singing convention in Georgia, and the Southern Musical Convention came into being.
While not all his life was to the benefit of the church, and he unfortunately supported the confederate cause, his legacy is best remembered as the writer and compiler of many hymn tunes and for the teaching music to many. Finally, in the fall of 1878, his beloved wife died, and he followed her just over a year later in December of 1879. But even to the end, he was composing songs and writing hymns to the glory of God.
Praise the One who breaks the darkness
With a liberating light.
Praise the One who frees the prisoners,
Turning blindness into sight.
Praise the One who preached the Gospel,
Healing every dread disease,
Calming storms and feeding thousands
With the very bread of peace.
This hymn is a song of praise to our Saviour, and we start with imagery from the first chapter of John (Jhn. 1:1-5). The picture is impactful, the image of light breaking the dark with the freedom found in Christ (Psa. 36:9, 56:13). This image shows Jesus coming with the light of life, the truth, and freeing us from sin and darkness(Jhn. 8:12). Were once were blind, but “now I see!” We were more than prisoners. We were slaves to sin (Rom. 6:17-22). The diseases He healed were more than physical, though He surely did that; He healed the sin of our souls, reconciling us and cleansing us (Isa. 53:5). While the last four lines are a brief list of what Jesus did on earth, the point is in the first: He preached the Gospel to lost and condemned sinners, to us, that we might have peace through Him (Eph. 2:14-16, Col. 1:19-21).
Praise the One who blessed the children
With a strong yet gentle word.
Praise the One who drove out demons
With a piercing two-edged sword.
Praise the One who brings cool water
To the desert’s burning sand.
From this Well comes living water,
Quenching thirst in every land.
While this verse continues with the precious scenes from the Gospels of Christ ministering to His people, I can’t help but see all people in these lines (Matt. 19:14, Mrk. 1:33-35). We are the children He blesses (Rom. 8:12-17, 10:11-13). He is the one who drives out demons and sin from our hearts. It is with His Word that both blessing and redemption come (1Cor. 1:28-31, Eph. 1:3-10, 6:17, Heb. 4:12. While these are images from His time on earth, Jesus and His Word are still at work among His people, His children, today. And what has He done? Not only has he brought light to our eyes, but He has also quenched our thirst for living water, the thirst that every people on every land on earth has – the thirst for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with our God and Father. This gift he has given freely, bringing life to a dead land, bringing life to us (Isa. 55:1-3, Jhn. 7:37-39, Rom. 6:4, Rev. 7:17).
Let us praise the Word incarnate:
Christ who suffered in our place.
Jesus died and rose victorious
That we may know God by grace.
Let us sing for joy and gladness,
Seeing what our God has done.
Let us praise the true Redeemer,
Praise the One who makes us one.
This verse gets to the heart of the matter. Who is Jesus? He was more than a miracle worker, a healer, or a teacher. He was all of those, but He is Immanuel (Matt. 1:23). He is the Word made flesh, that Word which pierced the darkness, the Word which spoke our peace from sin (Jhn. 1:14). Here, we reflect the words from the Creed: He “was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven”. Halleluiah! Because of this sacrifice, “we may know God by grace” rather than by His justly deserved wrath (Rom. 4:25-5:2, 5:12-19, 6:22-23). This is the reason why we sing with “joy and gladness.” We see all that God has done, not for our physical needs, which he provides for us every day without our asking; we see what God has done for our spiritual needs. He redeemed us by His blood and reconciled us to God, leading us to life everlasting with His resurrection. The One we sing to is the One who broke us out of our blindness in sin, bringing us into his marvelous light, and has made us one with God.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“Howard (‘Rusty’) Edwards.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press.
“Rusty Edwards.” Selah Publishing Co.
“The Three Ecumenical or Universal Creeds.”
William J. Reynolds. “B. F. White: The Sacred Harp Man“. Away Here in Texas. 1997.
“849 – Praise the One Who Breaks the Darkness.” The Lutheran Service Book. Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis. 2006.