His eye is on the Sparrow

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About the Hymn: His Eye Is On the Sparrow

Question 18 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What are God’s works of providence?
Answer: God’s works of providence are his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures; ordering them, and all their actions, to his own glory.

Our hymn focus this month is His Eye Is On the Sparrow by Civilla Martin and Charles Gabriel. Civilla Durfee Holden was born on August 21, 1866, in Jordan, Nova Scotia, Canada, to James and Irene Holden. Civilla grew up to become a school teacher, and taught in her native Canada before meeting her husband, Walter Stillman Martin. Walter was born in Rowley, Massachusetts, and would go on to attend Harvard University where he studied for the ministry, and was later ordained as a Baptist minister.

Walter and Civilla came together through a mutual interest in music, and after they were married, they traveled extensively doing evangelistic work in the northeast. In 1904, after they had been married a number of years, and were living at Practical Bible Training School in Johnson City, New York, Walter wrote the tune for one of her poems, God Will Take Care of You.

The story behind this now famous hymn goes that one Sunday, Walter was scheduled to preach in a town some distance from where him and his family lived. Civilla had recently become ill, and he was contemplating canceling his preaching engagement to tend to her. While it was being discussed, their nine year old daughter said, “Father, don’t you think that if God wants you to preach today, He will take care of Mother while you are away?” Walter ended up keeping that preaching engagement, and when he returned that evening, he found his wife feeling better.

Civilla wrote a poem based on her daughter’s faithful remark, and within an hour upon his return, Walter had written a melody for it. The song would go on to be included in the hymnbook Songs of Redemption, published in 1905, and compiled by Martin and John A. Davis. As popular as that hymn would go on to become, it would not be Civilla’s most prominent work. Just a short time later, she would go on to pen what would arguably become one of the most famous hymns written in the twentieth century, His Eye Is On the Sparrow.

The hymn was inspired by some friends of the Martin’s, the Doolittle’s of Elmira, New York, who by all accounts had every reason to be discouraged. For twenty years, Mrs. Doolittle had been confined to bed as an invalid. Her husband, a partial invalid, managed his business from a wheelchair.

As Civilla would later recall, the train ride to Elmira, New York, would be the most important trip she had ever taken. Upon her arrival, she attempted to cheer her friend anyway she knew how. She read the Bible to her, and prayed and talked openly with her about her debilitating condition. In the end though, it was Civilla who was the one encouraged, humbled, and deeply impressed by the joyful spirit that the Doolittle’s maintained in spite of their severe adversity. In her own words, she recalls what happened that day in Elmira:

Early in the spring of 1905, my husband and I were sojourning in Elmira, New York. We contracted a deep friendship for a couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle—true saints of God. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for nigh twenty years. Her husband was an incurable cripple who had to propel himself to and from his business in a wheel chair. Despite their afflictions, they lived happy Christian lives, bringing inspiration and comfort to all who knew them. One day while we were visiting with the Doolittles, my husband commented on their bright hopefulness and asked them for the secret of it. Mrs. Doolittle’s reply was simple: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.” The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me. The hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was the outcome of that experience.

It only took a few minutes for Civilla to turn those words into the poem we know today as His Eye Is On the Sparrow. Walter tried writing music for the poem, but was never satisfied with it, so a short time later, he mailed it off to a composer friend of his in England, Charles Gabriel, who wrote the music and melody that we still sing today. Here are the lyrics she penned that we will be focusing on this month in our Sunday gatherings:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

The hymn was sung publicly for the first time at Royal Albert Hall in England during the famous Torrey-Alexander revival in 1905. After it was sung in those revival meetings, the song quickly gained popularity and spread all over the world.

In 1916, the Martin family moved to Wilson, North Carolina, where Walter taught at Atlantic Christian College. In 1919, Walter served for a while on the staff at Standard Publishing, where he assisted in the production of the Christian Hymnal. Before the end of the year though, the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where they continued their evangelistic work, teaching the Bible and sharing the good news of Jesus all throughout the country.

Walter Martin died on December 16, 1935, and his body was buried in the Westview Cemetery in the West End area of Atlanta, Georgia. Civilla Martin lived another thirteen years before she died on March 9, 1948. Her body was buried next to her husbands.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow is inspired by the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, referenced by Mrs. Doolittle:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? – Matthew 6:26

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. – Matthew 10:29-31

It was these passages that gave Mrs. Doolittle so much hope and joy that particular day. God was not a passive observer to her, he was personally involved in every of her life, including the adversity she and her husband faced. The Lord gives us no promise of earthly comfort or safety. Hard times will come. We will suffer. We will die. Like the sparrow, we will fall. But, as the sparrow flies or falls only by the will and providence of its creator, so we also live, suffer, and die in his hand. He has promised to be with us always (Matthew 28:20), to supply all our needs (Philippians 4:19), to limit our temptations and provide our escape (1 Corinthians 10:13), and to work trials for our good (James 1:2-4). He has promised, in the end, “the crown of righteousness…to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8).

These are God’s works of providence: to carry us through, from beginning to end, in his hand. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

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