Hymns of Hope: Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

Hymns of Hope: Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

The story of the Song “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” is about two women- Lillias Trotter and Helen Lemmel- and how their unique talents merged to create one of the most beloved hymns of the 19th century.

Though Helen was born a decade later and the two women never met, they had much in common. Both women were born in England and were very artistically gifted. Helen’s family emigrated to the United States when she was twelve years old, eventually settling in Wisconsin. A great musical talent was identified in young Helen, gaining her a reputation as a brilliant singer. Music was her passion. As a young woman she traveled widely throughout the Midwest giving concerts in many churches.

Hellen moved to Germany in 1907 where she spent the next four years continuing her study of voice with private lessons. While in Germany, she met and married a wealthy European. Upon the completion of her studies she moved back to the Midwest where she entered an active period of concertizing throughout America. She eventually became the vocal music teacher at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois, even leading a woman’s choral group for Billy Sunday during the peak of his career. Throughout this time, she also continued her literary pursuits writing hymns, as well as stories and poems for children.

Then, a tragedy struck that would have life-altering effect. Hellen was diagnosed with an affliction that would result in blindness. Her husband, unable to cope with this new reality, abandoned the marriage, leaving her on her own. What might have been a debilitating experience both physically and emotionally only turned her more completely to God and to her most compelling vocation: the composing of hymns from the depth of her heart and life experience. Hellen continued to write until the end of her life. She authored around five hundred hymns, lyrics and music, many of which are still in circulation to this day. She moved back to Seattle, Washington upon retirement where, living in reduced circumstances, she continued to write out her heart in poems and set them to music. Now totally blind, she would pick out the notes on a small keyboard and call upon friends to record them before she forgot them.

How then did collaboration between Lillias Trotter and Hellen Lemmel take place? How did one song merge from two women who never met each other? It all began when Helen discovered a little leaflet called “Focused” by Lillias Trotter. Lillias too, was a gifted artist, though given the opportunity to become one of the world’s most renown painters, she felt God was calling her to missionary service. Leaving behind her life of privilege in England and her promising art career, she went to Algeria where she served for two decades. During her twenty years of service in North Africa she continued her painting and writing, she wrote and illustrated many little devotionals and pamphlets, “Focused” being one of them. The little leaflet contained a statement that had profound impact on Hellen: “So then turn your eyes upon Him, look full into His face and you will find that the things of earth will acquire a strange new dimness.” It was this quote that inspired Hellen to write the lyrics to the beautiful hymn, “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus”:

O soul, are you weary and troubled?

No light in the darkness you see?

There’s light for a look at the Savior,

And life more abundant and free!


Turn your eyes upon Jesus,

Look full in His wonderful face,

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,

In the light of His glory and grace.

Through death into life everlasting

He passed, and we follow Him there;

O’er us sin no more hath dominion—

For more than conqu’rors we are!

His Word shall not fail you—He promised;

Believe Him, and all will be well:

Then go to a world that is dying,

His perfect salvation to tell!

Helen said: “I stood still and singing in my soul and spirit was the chorus, with no one conscious moment of putting word to word to make rhyme or note to make melody.” God had given her a hymn of hope in seemingly hopeless circumstances. Her hope was not rooted in worldy comforts but in the promises of Christ and the expectation of spending an eternity with Him.

I marvel, in reflection, at the divine collaboration through which God uses people and circumstances to further His purposes. We may never know how or when a word or action will be transmuted by God into something beyond our intentions as it was with Lillias and Hellen. May this story be a reminder to you that God is at work in our individual lives, using our different giftings and life experiences to fulfill His will. He can take even our tragedies and use them to bring about something beautiful.

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