STORY BEHIND THE HYMN: “AT CALVARY”
Luke 23:33-34 (KJV), “And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. 34 Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.”
“We are not running a reform school!” This was a message from Dr. R. A. Torrey, in Chicago, to a pastor in Ohio.
More about that later.
To have a child grow into his teenage years as a troubled and unruly son can be very burdensome to parents, especially if “dad” is a pastor. In the early 1900s, while President of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, Torrey received a letter from just such a concerned and troubled pastor in Savannah, Ohio. The Ohio youngster, William “Bill” Newell, was causing himself and his family great mental anguish. Pastor Newell sensed that his son, Bill, needed to be under the influence of daily Scriptural teaching, coupled with the fellowship of young people whose attitudes were wholesome and honorable. In the letter to Torrey, Newell asked if his son, Bill, might be enrolled into the Chicago school.
Torrey answered the pastor’s letter, telling him that the school was an Institute where future missionaries and pastors were being trained, not a reform school. This did not deter Newell. He continued, in successive letters, to plead his son’s case.
Finally, after several weeks, Torrey gave in. He contacted Newell, telling him that his son, Bill, could enter MBI, but with certain stipulations and conditions. He was to faithfully attend classes, obey all of the rules and, each day, stop by Torrey’s office. Newell and son agreed, and MBI had a new student! Torrey later said, “I never saw a young man with more problems.”
As time went by, Bill remained as good as his word. He tried desperately to be a good student. He obeyed the rules and stopped by Torrey’s office each day if only to say hello. Days became weeks and weeks rolled into months, and small improvements were seen here and there.
One day, Bill burst into Torrey’s office with his face aglow. He announced that he had become a Christian. They rejoiced together!
Bill became a model student. He later graduated, and, in time, returned to become a member of the faculty of MBI. While on the teaching staff, Bill Newell wrote a poem, which he considered extremely meaningful. He later said, “As I read what I had written, I realized that it was a word picture of what had happened in my life.”
Dr. William R. Newell, as he was later known, took his poem to the office of Dr. D. B. Towner, head of the music department, and left the verses with him. In a chance meeting in a hallway. Towner said, “Bill, I was so taken by the poem you gave me that I went immediately to my studio and composed a tune. I feel that it could be the best song that either of us will ever write.”
Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified.
Knowing not it was for me he died
Mercy there was great and grace was free.
Pardon there was multiplied to me.
There my burdened soul found liberty.