It never ceases to amaze me the things we take for granted that are particular to a certain country, region, or even family. This insular way of looking at life is one reason why I think it’s vitally important that all kids go new places, study in a university that’s not next door, and visit other countries. Am I going to be excited when my birdies leave the nest? Absolutely not, but I think knowledge is the best way to combat ignorance and insensitivity.
*steps off soap box*
I know, I know. What does any of that have to do with Dwelling in Beulah Land? Well, I’ve learned a lot of things over the years. What we always called butter beans? They are actually lima beans. What I’ve always known as butter cups? They’re really daffodils. And songs that I thought everyone knew? Obscure camp meeting tunes from a little brown book popular in the Methodist church. The Cokesbury isn’t even the official Methodist hymnal, but you would’ve never guessed that from where I went to church. A good number of the songs I know by heart–like Dwelling in Beulah Land–aren’t even in the official Methodist hymnal. Imagine my shock when I sent my story to its first contest, the Fire and Ice one up in Chicago, and I get back the comment, “Did you make this hymn up?”
Dwelling in Beulah Land was written in 1911 by Charles A. Miles. He went to school to be a pharmacist but ended up writing hymns. You may know another of his songs, In the Garden. When I went to find out more information about the song, I came up with very, very little. There’s a discourse about what Beulah Land really means (it comes from the Hebrew and is mentioned only once in the English Bible in the Old Testament) and a grainy picture of Mr. Miles. I did find out that the melody of the song is used in the national anthem of Fiji–God Bless Fiji. For some reason this gives me great joy.
Here’s the fun part: Dwelling in Beulah Land is a part of the Cokesbury hymnal. I’m going to attempt to boil down the history of the hymnal, which will tell you a lot about the song.
Basically, the Methodist hymnal of the late 1800s swung back to the religion’s European roots. Meanwhile, camp meetings had taken hold of the nation–particularly in the South–and southerners loved them some gospel and even some African-American spirituals. As the Methodist hymnal continued to eschew these “popular” or “trashy and sentimental” upstarts, the people clamored for them. Add in a dose of southerners not liking the return to traditional and the northerners not liking anything the southerners wanted because…Reconstruction, and you have a little creative war going on as to which songs the church was going to sing. That war played itself out in my own church, albeit in subtle ways, by favoring the “little brown book” over the “big red one.” Fascinated by hymnal history? I gleaned all of this information from Steve West’s blog Musings of a Musical Preacher–and that post is just one of several that I plan to peruse at some point in the future.
The coolest part is looking at the history of one song in one hymn and realizing how it’s affected my work and my life. The Cokesbury is a celebration of the vernacular, a representing a musical style that is uniquely American. When I wrote the novel, I simply had a “What if…?” moment, but, hey, if it’s southern and it’s uniquely American, I’m intrigued by it.
Other than that? There’s not a lot to tell about the song itself. I’ve looked and looked, but what little information I can find goes back to Miles himself. It may not even be one of his favorite hymns and yet it inspired an entire novel from me. I suppose that’s the way it goes. Here’s a link to the lyrics of Dwelling in Beulah Land. If I had a recording of the Whitlock Ramblers, I’d attach that, but here’s a video of the Gaithers instead. (If you use your imagination, it won’t be hard to imagine the song as even jazzier.)