Higher Ground
Lift Every Voice and Sing (LEVAS)  Number 165

1 I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” [Refrain]

2 My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where these abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground. [Refrain]

3 I want to live above the world,
Though Satan’s darts at me are hurled;
For faith has caught a joyful sound,
The song of saints on higher ground. [Refrain]

4 I want to scale the utmost height,
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray till heav’n I’ve found,
“Lord, lead me on to higher ground.” [Refrain]

Lord, lift me up, and let me stand
By faith, on heaven’s tableland;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

Those of us who live in South Louisiana do not need an explanation of the significance of the term “higher ground.” When heavy rain is forecast, people in New Orleans rush to park their cars on the neutral ground, which is not very high, but it is generally higher ground than their driveways. When a hurricane is heading for us, people who live in two-story houses take their most valuable possessions upstairs. And, in the worst case, we leave, heading out of town for higher ground.

We also use the term to mean the correct moral stance in a difficult situation. We try to live the Gospel principle of the Golden Rule and teach it to our children. That requires us to not render evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good. Romans 12:17-21. We say to our children (and to ourselves), “Do not cede the high ground.”

As a general rule, we always strive for upward, rather than downward, movement in pretty much everything we do. Acclaim usually goes to the people with the highest scores. But in terms of our spiritual lives, we think of moving upward, not for acclaim or power, but for purposes of disentangling ourselves from earthly things and moving closer to God. And, of course, we think of heaven as being the ultimate high ground. This hymn speaks of higher ground, both in terms of our upward journey, and our ultimate destination.

The Epistle Lesson for October 8 includes the scriptural basis for this hymn: Philippians 2:13-14 (forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press on toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.)

Additional scriptural references are Colossians 3:1-23 (If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.); Psalm 18:16 (He reached from on high, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.); Psalm 18:33 (He made my feet like hinds’ feet, and set me secure on the heights.); Psalm 40:2 (He brought me up out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock.); Isaiah 58:14 (Then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.); Micah 4:1–2 (It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob.”).

The hymn writer, Burt Johnson Oatman, Jr. (1856-1922), wrote over 3,000 hymns. He was a New Jersey businessman, in the mercantile business and the life insurance business, and also a Methodist minister. Though he did not have a regular position as a minister, it was said of him that he “preached the gospel to all the world and every creature” with his hymns.

Higher Ground was one of his most popular hymns. The term, “higher ground” comes at the end of every stanza, and at the end of the refrain, so that by the time we finish singing this hymn we have sung those words eight times. They say nothing could bring forth more shouts of “Glory” and “Hallelujah” at camp meetings than the singing of Higher Ground. Even so, Oatman’s masterpiece is considered to be Count Your Blessings, which was my mother’s favorite hymn. I am sorry to say it is not in our hymnal, but I could sing it to you!

Charles H. Gabriel (1856-1932), the tune writer, was a Presbyterian Iowa farm boy. Gabriel taught himself to play the family reed organ, and when friends and neighbors gathered to sing, he accompanied them. By the time he was sixteen, Gabriel was following in his father’s footsteps as a shape-note singing school teacher, and his career blossomed from there. He was acclaimed as a teacher and composer, with about seven thousand compositions to his credit. In addition to hymns and hymn tunes, he wrote cantatas for children and adults, as well as anthems and operettas. He considered his best work to be a sacred cantata, Saul, King of Israel. He was very interested in military bands, and he wrote marches and other compositions for band. He was a Sunday school music director at Grace Methodist Church in San Francisco, and a music editor for music publishing companies.

Gabriel is probably best known for his gospel song tunes, but in some cases, he composed both texts and tunes for gospel songs. His compositions became widely known through the Billy Sunday-Homer Rodeheaver crusades. There are five Gabriel tunes in LIFT EVERY VOICE AND SING. Besides the tune for Higher Ground, some his more familiar tunes are for His Eye Is On the Sparrow (LEVAS 191) and for An Evening Prayer (LEVAS 176). Other famous tunes he wrote are for Brighten the Corner Where You Are; and for Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which has become a standard country gospel song recorded by several different artists.

Notice how Gabriel’s tune fits the text. We begin the opening phrase of the Refrain, “Lord, lift me up,” on the lowest note of the melody, and then, with each word going higher, we climb up an octave, to the highest note of the melody. So we can feel the Lord lifting us up, just as Psalm 18 says. Similarly, on the words, “a higher plane,” the first two notes are the highest notes in the melody.

On October 8, the Choir will sing a wonderful setting of this hymn by our own Bill Horne. Bill uses Charles H. Gabriel’s tune, but he takes us to even higher ground than Gabriel does. Please pay special attention to the final stanza, where a soprano descant above the melody just keeps going higher and higher. Then, at the very end, as we repeat the words, “on higher ground,” the tenors go up the scale, and the sopranos and altos jump up in pitch on the final word, “ground.” Thus, the anthem ends by taking us up into the heavens, and leaving us there to dwell.

— Carolyn Parmenter, Music Director