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The hymn “Near to the Heart of God” arose from the tragic loss of two of Cleland McAfee’s (1866-1944) nieces to diphtheria in 1903. McAfee was preacher and choir director of the campus Presbyterian church at Park College, Parkville, Mo.

Quoting his daughter: “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. The choir learned it at the regular Saturday night rehearsal, and afterward they went to Howard McAfee’s home and sang it as they stood under the sky outside the darkened, quarantined house. It was sung again on Sunday morning at the communion service.”

United Methodist Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton R. Young, suggests that the “stanzas affirm that near to God’s heart is a meeting place with the Savior, a place of ‘quiet rest,’ ‘comfort,’ ‘full release,’ and ‘joy and peace.’ The refrain petitions Jesus to sustain us near to God’s heart.”

“Near to the Heart of God,” a simple hymn, expresses in a profound way the admonition of James 4:8, “Draw nigh unto God and He will draw nigh unto you.” A characteristic of gospel hymns of this era, especially those that employ an intimate language to express the relationship between the believer and God, is to repeat a short phrase several times, allowing the message to burrow deeper into the psyche of the singer and to plant a little kernel of truth. In this case the repeated phrase is “near to the heart of God,” which appears 12 times if all stanzas are sung and the refrain repeated after each stanza.

Uncharacteristic of gospel hymns, however, is that this hymn describes this “place of quiet rest” in the third person. Almost invariably, other hymn writers from this era in the United States and Great Britain express their relationship to God in the first person.

This information is drawn from an article by Dr. C. Michael Hawn, Professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University 

Here is the first verse:   

There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God; a place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God. 

O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God, hold us who wait before thee near to the heart of God.   

If you would like to hear the song in its entirety, take this link: