Lowell Mason was born in Medfield, Massachusetts on January 8th, 1792. His father and grandfather were musically inclined, and Mason showed an affinity for music early in life. Although no one in his family was a professional musician, he took advantage of every opportunity to grow his skill and learned several instruments. In 1812 he moved to Savannah, GA, and became a bank clerk there.
Joining Independent Presbyterian Church began his lifelong ministry in music. He played the organ, led the choir, and served as Sunday school superintendent, helping to organize what was then the only Sunday School in Savannah. This new city afforded him the opportunity to study with his first well-educated teacher, Frederick L. Abel. The 16 years Mason lived in Savannah were profitable, as Mason worked his job, wrote music, and continued to learn. Here Mason wrote the tune to the famous missionary hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” authored by Reginald Heber. Ira Sankey, in, “My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns,” gives account of the history behind the song thus:
“One Saturday afternoon in the year 1819, young Reginald Heber, rector of Hodnet, sitting with his father-in-law, Dean Shipley, and a few friends in the Wrexham Vicarage, was suddenly asked by the Dean to ‘write something to sing at the missionary meeting tomorrow,’ and retired to another part of the room while the rest went on talking; … very soon after he returned with three stanzas, which were hailed with delighted approval; …he then insisted upon adding another octrain to the hymn and came back with –
Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,
And you, ye waters, roll;...”
“The union of words and music in this instance is an example of spiritual affinity. “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” The story of the tune is a record of providential birth quite as interesting as that of the hymn. In 1823, a lady in Savannah, Ga., having received and admired a copy of Heber’s lyric from England, desired to sing it or hear it sung, but knew no music to fit the metre. She finally thought of a young clerk in a bank close by, Lowell Mason by name, who sometimes wrote music for recreation, and sent her son to ask him if he would make a tune that would sing the lines. The boy returned in half and hour with the composition that doubled Heber’s fame and made his own.”
“In the words of Dr. Charles Robinson, “Like the hymn it voices, it was done at a stroke, and it will last through the ages.”
Mason’s first book of music was written while in Savannah but remained unpublished until the Boston Handel and Haydn Society accepted the work and published it in 1822. This inaugural book was highly successful and began to earn Mason a degree of notoriety. In 1827, Mason moved to Boston, where he was already known as composer of “The Missionary Hymn.” In Boston, he became known as a leader in church and choral music, serving as choir director of Bowdoin St. Church and as President of the “most prestigious choral group of the period,” the Boston Handel and Haydn Society. Mason’s first music book for children, Juvenile Psalms, was published in 1829. By 1838 he had succeeded in introducing music into the curriculum of the Boston public schools, the first school system in America to introduce music as part of the curriculum. His legacy in this point continues to bear fruit in the United States. Other fruit to his account is that of his student, prominent hymn writer William Bradbury, who was encouraged by his tutor to pursue music as a profession.
In 1837 Mason went abroad to Europe to study music and there obtained the distinction of Doctor. In his travels, he collected music to model his future writings and observed the music instruction technique developed by Pestalozzi.
When Mason returned to the United States, he moved his business headquarters to New York City and his dwelling to nearby Orange, New Jersey. Here he lived for the remainder of his life as an “industrious and conspicuously successful composer and compiler of books for singing classes, church services, and juvenile instruction.” Lowell Mason died in Orange, New Jersey, on August 11th, 1872, but left a legacy matched by few. Of this, Sankey writes;
“… what he did for the song-service of the Church in America by his singing schools, and musical conventions, and published manuals, to form and organize the choral branch of divine worship, has no parallel, unless it is Noah Webster’s service to the English language.”