Today, October 7, is the 267th anniversary of William Billings’ birth. I can hear it now: “Who?” William Billings was actually quite well known in his time. He was known as one of the most prolific musical composers of his day; some even call him the “leading composer” of his generation. He wrote and published collections for both the church and “secular” singers.
From a musical standpoint, in addition to his prolific writing, singing instruction, etc. it was Billings who introduced the practice of using a pitch pipe to get a choir started on the right note. He was involved in much of the “evolution” of church music in Puritan New England.
From a patriotic/historical standpoint, Billings wrote a little piece that went like this:
Let tyrants shake their iron rods,And slavery clank her galling chains:
We see them not; we trust in God:
New England’s God forever reigns.
It’s said that this little ditty “was almost as famous in its day as the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ at a later time.” This source goes on to say: “Everywhere, in church and home, by the children and the aged, these words were sung with passionate fervor. The soldiers knew them by heart, and to the sound of fife and drum they sang them as they advanced to meet the foe. This Battle Hymn contributed not a little to the winning of the Revolutionary War.” (see here)
Billings obviously was a man of influence and impact. So what’s the point? Well, a few things I can think of.
One, Billings had no musical training at all. In fact, as prolific as he became as a composer, he was never able to actually make a living as a musician. He was apprenticed as a young man to a tanner. He later worked as a hog wrangler and street cleaner before eventually becoming a singing instructor and church choir trainer.
In fact, it’s said that his own voice was “loud and rasping” and his physical appearance was not exactly one that inspired great confidence. But he saw some needs in the church as it applied to music, and would often jot down notes and ideas on scraps of leather in the tannery where he worked.
The lesson here, as far as I’m concerned, is that worldly appearances and expert training aren’t all their cracked up to be. If God has called us to a task, we should give ourselves to it, and He can do amazing things in and through us.
Which suggests a second lesson. Billings was used in great ways in his day, both in the church and in the national spirit. No one remembers him today for the most part, but he had tremendous impact. Today, so many are concerned about being big and famous and think that unless we are, we won’t have influence or be remembered. Billings reminds me that we can have influence whether we’re “remembered” or not; and we shouldn’t even be thinking in those terms. Just go out and do what God has called you to do. Let Him worry about the results.
And third, even though you may have dreams of doing one thing, you’re not too good to get a “menial” job and work for a living. Though Billings would eventually teach music and lead choirs, he spent a lot of time in that tannery, not the “cleanest” of professions. And let’s not even talk about the street cleaning and hog chasing. He certainly had his musical dreams even in those days, but never was too prideful to work for a living.
Our American heritage is filled with stories of men like William Billings. People who weren’t afraid to work and get their hands dirty. People who weren’t as caught up with looking good and having the right pedigree, but simply put their skills to work. And people who didn’t set out to make and “impact”, but had a great one none the less.
So Happy Birthday, Mr. Billings. Even if no one remembers my name in years to come, even if I’m not the most gifted and famous preacher, even if I have to slop hogs to make ends meet (which may happen one day soon!), I pray I live my life in faithful obedience and that God will use me to touch someone for His Kingdom and His Glory.