Ray Palmer, a prolific author and poet, was born in November of 1808 to Judge Thomas Palmer and his wife Susanna. Though born in Rhode Island, he grew up in Boston. This was because his family wanted him to work in a store, which he began to do at age thirteen as a clerk. Simultaneously, he also went to school, as encouraged by his pastor there. Two years later, he decided he wanted to go to college and attended Yale, from which he graduated in 1830. Shortly thereafter, he began teaching a private school for women in New York, then went to New Haven in Connecticut to teach at similar school.
Around this time, he married Ann Maria, an English merchant’s daughter, in October of 1832. Together, they had ten children! Two years later, he was ordained as a Congregationalist and served at churches in Maine and New York. He also worked at the Congregational Union for twelve years until 1878. It was during this time that he did most of his writing. Once he left working for the Union, he lived the rest of his days focused on his poetry and prose, though he briefly and occasionally aided a church nearby.
Towards the end of his life, in 1883, he suffered physically and became partially paralyzed, never fully recovering. Three years later, his wife died. Though his health steadily declined, he continued his work until 1887, where after one final blow, he died on March 29th. Over the course of his life, he published at least a half dozen books of prose and a handful of hymn and poetry books. But among all his writings, he is best known for the 1830 hymn he wrote at a time of loneliness and sickness, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”
Palmer gave this hymn to a friend, Lowell Mason, and asked him to write the tune for it in 1832. Mason was a hymnist as well as a composer. For better or worse, he significantly influenced hymn music in America. Mason was rather snobbish, and he was highly critical of shape-note style music and sacred harp singing. He preferred the classical music of Europe and made it his mission to introduce “better music” to America. However, he was a skilled musician and composer, and he introduced some beautiful tunes in addition to OLIVET, the tune to this hymn, such as those for “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” He also started the first music program for public schools in America. Though his legacy is mixed at best, Mason is credited with the creation of the music of this beautiful and comforting hymn.
My faith looks up to Thee,
thou Lamb of Calvary,
Now hear me while I pray,
take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day
be wholly Thine!
Loneliness and despair are states that are unfortunately too common. There are days when worry over the next, anxiety over the present, and fear of the unknown wrestle to overwhelm us. These are days when we ask God, “where are you?” But recognize this: we ask because we know He is there and He hears us. Thus, we pray as we sing “my faith looks up to Thee.” And to whom? To Him who sacrificed Himself for us that we would not face that ultimate separation (Jhn. 1:29, Rom. 5, Heb. 12:2-3). But our sin threatens to condemn us, so we ask then for God to not only hear us but forgive us, continuing this work of sanctification until we are at last with Christ (Psa. 51, Gal. 2:19-20, Eph. 2:1-10, 1 Jhn. 1:9).
May Thy rich grace impart
strength to my fainting heart,
my zeal inspire!
As Thou hast died for me,
O may my love to Thee
pure, warm, and changeless be,
a living fire!
The second verse continues this prayer. Our faith turns us back to Christ and His Word. Yet though the spirit is strong, our flesh is weak (Prov. 12:25). So we ask that God may revive us and renew us, showing grace to us in our weak points of doubt when our love for God is not as changeless as Christ’s is for us (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
While life’s dark maze I tread,
and griefs around me spread,
be Thou my guide;
bid darkness turn to day,
wipe sorrow’s tears away,
nor let me ever stray
from Thee aside.
Here, we move out of our present darkness in look towards our Guide. Sometimes, it takes a moment to recognize where we are at present and then ask for help. And once we have been pulled from the mire of doubt, we ask for the Lord’s help again that we might be led next time. For we will face hardships again. Our fear will push into our hearts, and griefs of all sorts will aim to weigh us down. But we have been made alive in Christ, pulled out of darkness and into His marvelous light (Col. 1:13-14, 1 Pet. 2:9). Our sorrow has been turned to laughter, our grief to joy, our anxiety to peace (Psa. 23, 5:11, 16:11, 1 Pet. 5:6-7). So, where we first asked for forgiveness for straying, here we now ask for His hand to guide us in this life.
When ends life’s transient dream,
when death’s cold, sullen stream
shall o’er me roll,
blest Savior, then, in love,
fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above,
a ransomed soul!
And now that we have remembered God’s grace, presence, and forgiveness in this life, we turn now to the next. We know that this one will end, with all its griefs and pain. But we know that the Lord is the one who holds our future, our eternity. He has blest and kept us in this life, and when this “life’s transient dream” takes its final breath, we shall then take comfort in knowing that we will live with Christ for all eternity in perfect blessedness, for we have been ransomed by “the Lamb of Calvary” (2 Cor. 4:13-18, 1 Thes. 4:17, 5:8-11, Psa. 31:5, Gal. 3:12-14).
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“702. My Faith Looks Up to Thee.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.
“Lowell Mason.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 Jan. 2021
“Lowell Mason.” Hymnology Archive.
“Lowell Mason & The “Better Music” Boys.” Amaranth Publishing.
“Ray Palmer.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press.
“Ray Palmer.” Center for Church Music.
“Ray Palmer.” Hymnary.org.