Songs from the heart tend to be the most relatable. Hymns are a prime example, so many being born from the universal longing for a Savior. Near to the Heart of God was written amidst terrible tragedy; a time when that longing is at its most severe.
Cleland McAfee was born in Missouri, 1866. Growing up, Cleland experienced life within the strong community of Parksville, Missouri. The McAfee’s were a crucial piece of the community because Cleland’s father, John, founded Park College there. John’s legacy was upheld by Cleland when the son first attended his father’s university, then became a dominant figure of it. Pastor, professor, choir director, dean of the university; Cleland took on many university roles. Beyond the university, Cleland added to the Parksville community when he married Hattie Brown and had three daughters with her. Only something big could have taken Cleland away from Parksville, and something big came. In 1901, Cleland was honored by the offer of becoming head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Reluctantly, he left his Parksville community, but was quickly called back when tragedy struck.
In 1901, the very year that Cleland left for Chicago, diphtheria claimed the lives of two of Cleland’s nieces. Both the McAfee family and the community around them mourned greatly, and Cleland hurried back to Parksville for the funeral. Having daughters of his own, Cleland felt his family’s deep pain on a very personal level. He knew that only God could comfort in such a situation, and he knew a song was the finest way to express that.
In those days of mourning, Near to the Heart of God was born. Cleland’s daughter later described the painful period like this: “The family and town were stricken with grief. My father often told us how he sat long and late thinking of what could be said in word and song on the coming Sunday…. so he wrote the little song.”
Cleland sang the song during the funeral, reminding all in attendance that in the midst of tragedy, peace can only be found in God. Those at the funeral commended Cleland for the song, so he decided to teach it to his congregation when he returned to Chicago.
Most hymns take many years to spread to the multitudes, but Near to the Heart of God was different. The pastor of First Presbyterian of Berkeley, California happened to be at Cleland’s church when the song was first sung, and by the next time he was in front of his own congregation, they were singing the song too. Congregation to congregation the song spread, showing how relatable the need for a Savior is.
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