Lead me to the rock that is higher than I. Psalm 61:2
There was a convention of the [Young Men’s Christian Association] at Carlisle [Pennsylvania], which I attended as a delegate, and John Wanamaker was president of the convention. About the second day there came a telegram from Philadelphia that the banking house of Jay Cook & Co. had failed, in which Mr. Wanamaker had $70,000 which to him at that time in life was a great amount to lose.
Soon followed reports of other firms throughout the country, indicating a general panic. As a matter of course, it threw a pall of gloom over the convention, for nearly all its members were men of business.
As an expression of the common feeling I wrote The Rock That Is Higher Than I.…Mr. Wm. Fisher [sic] of Philadelphia, the composer of many tunes for gospel hymns, was at the convention, and in conjunction with Brother William, led the singing. I gave the words to him and he set them to music, sang them, and they with the music immediately became popular in the convention, especially with Mr. Wanamaker, who several times called for it. And soon it found its way into many publications.
Autobiography of Erastus Johnson, edited by Fremont Johnson, Chapter VII
Johnson’s autobiography also relates some incidents connected to the song:
In 1881 I was in Atlanta [Georgia] putting an oil show in the Exposition for the Standard Oil Co. Sunday morning I entered a church near my stopping place just as Sunday School was beginning and was shown into a bible class.
The first piece sung was this one, and I had the vanity to tell the leader of the class that the piece was mine. He said,It is mine too, I like that piece.I ventured a step farther and saidI wrote it.He answered,Well, it is worth writing; I have thought I would write it off myself.I gave it up.
Another instance was the following: I was for a time confined in a hospital at Whatcom, Wash. (Feb 1900) having had an operation performed, and in an adjoining room was a young lady who had received severe injuries from falling from a high bridge by the backing of a frightened horse, and she had been thrown through the railing.
She was a good singer, accompanying her songs with her guitar, and as she lay upon her bed, sang many songs, mostly gospel, which sounded out through the halls and rooms very sweetly to the gratification of many listeners, who sent back to her words of appreciation. Among other things she often sang The Rock That Is Higher Than I.
At length, getting so that I could walk on crutches, I obtained the permission of the matron and made her a visit, thanking her for the enjoyment she had afforded us, and making known to her the authorship of the piece mentioned, to her great surprise.
Another testimony of appreciation which gave me much satisfaction was a letter I received from a lady, and how she found my address was a mystery. She wrote that it was the dying request of her father that she should find out my whereabouts and write, thanking me for the comfort the words had given him.
When in St. Louis in 1901 on a visit to William and Nathan, who should come in on me but the reporter of one of the papers, saying he wanted to take the picture of the author of The Rock That Is Higher Than I. How he was informed of the fact that I was there, I didn’t know. It was not through my brothers. If I was flattered at so much attention, the flattery was all spoiled when my picture appeared.
Oh! sometimes the shadows are deep,
And rough seems the path to the goal,
And sorrows, sometimes how they sweep
Like tempests down over the soul.
O then to the Rock let me fly
To the Rock that is higher than I
O then to the Rock let me fly
To the Rock that is higher than I!
Oh! sometimes how long seems the day,
And sometimes how weary my feet!
But toiling in life’s dusty way,
The Rock’s blessèd shadow, how sweet!
Then near to the Rock let me keep
If blessings or sorrows prevail,
Or climbing the mountain way steep,
Or walking the shadowy vale.