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Bizarre History of Cape May >> Cape May hymn writer received popularity but not money

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When Christians attend church they have a Cape May native to thank for the lyrics of a gospel hymn that is still among the most popular hymns ever composed.

Edgar Page Stites wrote the words for “Beulah Land” in 1876 and the music was composed by nationally known composer John Sweney.

The hymn comes from the King James version of Isaiah 62:4, “Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate; but thou shall be called Hephzibah and thy land Beulah, for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.”

Stites, who sometime wrote under the pseudonym of Page, confessed that it was an emotional time for him when he wrote the lyrics at the age of 40 in 1876.

“I could write only two verses and the chorus, when I was overcome and fell on my face,” he was to say. “That was one Sunday. On the following Sunday I wrote the third and fourth verses, and again I was so influenced by emotion that I could only pray and weep. The first time it was sung was at the regular Monday morning meeting of Methodists in Philadelphia. Bishop McCabe sang it to assembled ministers. Since then it is known wherever religious people congregate. I have never received a cent for my songs. Perhaps that is why they have had such a wide popularity. I could not do work for the Master and receive pay for it.”

Born in Cape May in 1836, Stites was converted to Christ when he was 19 years old and soon joined the Methodist Church. He became a lay pastor and with others in the Methodist church he founded the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association, which ran a camp meeting near the Ocean Grove seashore resort in North Jersey. Many popular hymn writers of his time were involved there, including Sweney who was the camp song leader.

When Sweney died in 1899, Stites, who lived until the age of 85 in 1921, sang “this favorite song” at Sweney’s funeral at his church in West Chester, Pa.

Stites was especially proud of a letter he received from the YMCA in Plymouth England. The writer said a young woman sang his hymn “on her dying bed as she passed into the land that is fairer than day.”

Stites, who served in the Civil War in Philadelphia, was a member of the First Methodist Church in Cape May for 60 years and was a local missionary as well as in the burgeoning Dakota territory. He, his wife, Sarah, and his parents are buried in the cemetery of the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church.

While he was active mostly in the Methodist Church he is said to have spoken at the first Rally Day service held at Cold Spring in about 1912.

Although it was his most famous hymn, “Beulah Land” was not the only one written by Stites. One of his other works was “Trusting Jesus,” the lyrics of which came from a poem Stites wrote and was published in a newspaper. The music was composed by Ira Sankey who also was a collaborator in the Ocean Grove camp enterprise.

A 2009 album “Dusty Roads to Beulah Land,” by songwriter Drew Nelson is said to be “a love song to the state of Michigan.” Author Mary Lee Settle, winner of the National Book Award for “Blood Ties” in 1978, wrote a series of novels called “The Beulah Land Quintet” and they began with “O Beulah Land.” Another author, H. L. Davis who won the Pulitzer prize for his 1935 “Honey in the Horn,” wrote a 1949 novel called “Beulah Land” about Cherokee Indians.

Writing hymns apparently ran in the blood. Stites’ cousin, Eliza Hewitt, born in Philadelphia in 1851, also wrote hymns, surviving adversity after she was assaulted by a student as a school teacher. The injury incapacitated her for some six months, during which time she was drawn closer to God and started studying the Bible. She wrote a poem called “More About Music” which Sweney put to music.

The lyrics mirror the desires of Christians who want to draw closer to their savior, “More about Jesus would I know, more of his grace to others show, more of His saving fullness see, more of His love who died for me.”

Here follows the lyrics of “Beulah Land” by Edgar Page Stites for those who do not have access to a church hymnal:

“I’ve reached the land of corn and wine,

And all its riches freely mine;

Here shines undimmed one blissful day,

For all my night has passed away

“O Beulah Lands, sweet Beulah Land,

As on thy highest mount I stand,

I look away across the sea,

Where mansions are prepared for me,

And view the shining glory shore,

My heav’n, my home for evermore!

“My Savior comes and walks with me

And sweet communion here have we,

He gently leads me by His hand

For this is heaven’s border land.”

REFRAIN

“A sweet perfume upon the breeze,

Is borne from ever vernal trees,

And flow’rs that never fading grow,

Where streams of life forever flow.”

REFRAIN

“The zephyrs seem to float to me,

Sweet sounds to Heaven’s melody

As angels with the white robed throng

Join in sweet redemption song.”


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