The words of this song of testimony were written in 1886 by Francis H. Rowley, pastor of the First Baptist Church of North Adams, Massachusetts. Peter Bilhorn, a remarkable young musician, assisted him in the ministry. After one Sunday evening service, he asked Rowley, “Why don’t you write a hymn for me to set to music?” During that night, the verses came to the pastor in a poem that began, “Can’t You Sing the Wondrous Story?” Bilhorn then wrote the music.
Peter P. Bilhorn was born in Illinois in 1865. When he was eight, his father was killed in the Civil War, and Peter had to drop out of school to help support the family. He was fifteen when the family moved to Chicago, and the teenager sang in concert halls and beer gardens around the city. When he was twenty, he received Christ during evangelistic meetings Dr. George F. Pentecost held. After that, he became actively involved in missions, evangelistic singing, and preaching while he studied under George Stebbins, George Root, and other gospel songwriters.
God greatly used Peter throughout America, Great Britain, and other countries. He produced about 2,000 gospel songs and published many songbooks. He also served as song leader during the early days of Billy Sunday’s ministry. In those days, there was a need for a small, portable musical instrument to be used in evangelistic meetings, street meetings, and on mission fields. Peter designed and built a small portable organ that weighed only sixteen pounds and could be folded into a suitcase. The Bilhorn Brothers Organ Company began manufacturing them in 1887, and they were used around the world. The profits were put back into the Lord's work.
There’s a story that tells of Peter Bilhorn’s evangelistic zeal. One bitterly cold night, while holding revival meetings in Wisconsin, he went to his hotel room but could not sleep. He felt compelled to get dressed, take his folding organ, and walk down the street. When he saw the light in a basement window, he knocked and was admitted to where a group of men was gambling. He set up the organ and began to sing “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” As a result, six of the men accepted Christ as their Saviour.
The song that Pastor Rowley and Peter Bilhorn had done together was given to Ira Sankey as a gift. Sankey was greatly impressed and published it as “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” in his 1887 edition of “Gospel Hymns and Sacred Songs and Solos.” Some years later, Rowley wrote of the song: “As I was going down a London street one night about eleven o’clock, I discovered ahead of me a group of Salvation Army people holding a service, and as I came nearer to them it occurred to me that the hymn they were singing was familiar. Then it dawned upon me that it was the one that I had written.” What more wondrous story can be sung than what Christ has done and continues to do for those who trust in Him? Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul (Psalm 66:16).
Of the Christ who died for me,
How he left his home in glory,
For the cross on Calvary.
Yes, I’ll sing the wondrous story
Of the Christ who died for me,
Gathered by the crystal sea.
Found the sheep that went astray,
Threw his loving arms around me,
Drew me back into his way.
Faint was I, from many a fall,
Sight was gone, and fears possessed me,
But he freed me from them all.
But the Saviour still is with me,
By his hand I’m safely led.
Rolls its waters at my feet;
Then he’ll bear me safely over,
Where the loved ones I shall meet.
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