A woman sits in a ballooning black taffeta dress with her thin hands folded. Beneath her placid face with its broad nose, her dress buries what we believe on faith to have been a womanly figure. There is something very deep about the eyes of this sober lady, who has a very long name: Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg. Despite all formal appearance to the contrary, she preferred to be called Lina Sandell.
I came across Sandell’s photo in an enormous anthology of hymnody by Douglas Alvin Snow. I found it among my husband’s books, which I’m happy to report now belong to me too. The open book spreads larger than my lap and is peopled by faded personages such as this woman, who wrote the enduring hymn “Day by Day.”
Sandell lived from 1832 to 1903 and wrote 650 hymns. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, died tragically on a boat trip. He fell overboard before his daughter’s eyes. It is said that this hardship inspired the 26-year-old Sandell to begin writing hymns.
Oskar Ahnfelt, Sweden’s “Spiritual Troubadour,” composed the music that accompanies her hymns and traveled throughout Scandinavia performing them on a 10-string guitar. Since the state church opposed pietistic hymns it demanded he play before King Karl XV.
Snow writes, “After hearing him sing her hymns, the King said, ‘You may sing them as much as you desire in both my kingdoms.’ Anhfelt sang them so much that Lina wrote, ‘Ahnfelt has sung my songs into the hearts of the people.’”
Now the songs are not just in the hearts of the Scandinavians. They are in mine. I remember talking to a friend about the line in “Day by Day” that occurs in the second half of the first verse, just when the music starts to swoop upward:
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure,
Gives unto each day what He deems best.
My friend said, “I feel like that phrase buttered me up and then stabbed me through with a knife.”
The hymn does have a knack for swallowing hard providences. It washes them down with faith that God’s purposes for the saint that are contingent upon the kindness of His heart.
I probably don’t have to tell you that hymns, with all their fiber and grit, can shape the heart and mind in a particular and precious way, even nearly 200 years after their popularization. Yet hymn writers are a distant race that appears at best in black-and-white photographs. At worst a hymnist appears as an eighth-of-an-inch byline in the upper left-hand corners of dusty pages we do not open anymore.
I learned early from the Bible that the trials appointed for the Christian should lead him to praise rather than renunciation. But it is another thing to know theology by testing and experience. Lina Sandell knew God’s kindness from experience. You can tell by her words.