Bunyan, Beulah, and Squire
In the course of a larger comment-thread discussion about scripture and music, a reader traces forward the evolution of Beulah Land in gospel song:
If you are looking in the Bible, you’re looking in the wrong place for the origin of “Beulah” as used by Squire Parsons and other contemporary gospel songwriters.
It comes instead from the very influential allegorical novel “Pilgrim’s Progress,” written by John Bunyan in the seventeenth century. Bunyan assigns the name Beulah to the beautiful, peaceful, Edenic-like garden area at the very end of the King’s Highway, just before the Celestial City. From Beulah, one can see the radiant majesty of the Celestial City very near by, just across the River of Death. In Beulah, pilgrims relax and recover from their journeys until it is their time to cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City.
As an allegory, every name (for both characters and places) in Pilgrim’s Progress is vested with meaning. There are MANY, MANY names that Bunyan uses–and many of them he does take from the Bible. There is no doubt that Bunyan got the name “Beulah” from the passage you cite (Is. 62.4), but, at least as he uses it as a place name in Pilgrim’s Progress, it seems pretty clear that Bunyan isn’t trying to evoke any meaning from the original context in Isaiah–he is simply lifting an obscure place name from the Bible and using it for this beautiful and serene garden at the end of life’s journey, just before heaven.
Obscure no longer, however, for in this new context in Pilgrim’s Progress, “Beulah” becomes the destination for the end of the Christian’s life. Due to the immense popularity of the book, many names Bunyan uses in Pilgrim’s Progress have become part of English-speaking life and culture–including not just “Beulah,” but (among others) also “Vanity Fair,” the “River of Death,” the “Slough of Despond,” and even the notions that the Christian life is a “pilgrimage” or that an unconverted person carries a heavy “burden” that is finally released when one comes to the Cross.
In this new context in which Bunyan places “Beulah,” it becomes the final destination of the Christian’s life, evoking the supposed serenity of the last days of one’s life, knowing the battles (spiritual and physical) are all behind, and that one can already see heaven awaiting.
This is the context that the popular gospel song / hymn “Beulah Land,” written in the nineteenth century by E. P. Stites, is meant to evoke. A quick look at the first two verses and refrain show how this song is meant to allude to Bunyan’s “Beulah”:
I’ve reached the land of corn and wine,
And all its riches freely mine;
Here shines undimmed one blissful day,
For all my night has passed away.
O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land,
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea,
Where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore,
My Heav’n, my home forever more!
My Savior comes and walks with me,
And sweet communion here have we;
He gently leads me by His hand,
For this is Heaven’s border land.
Clearly Stites is drawing on Bunyan’s vision of a land just before death, on the border of heaven, but still not quite there yet–one still has to cross the barrier of death before finally reaching heaven.
But . . . wait! That’s not quite the context in which Squire Parsons uses “Beulah”:
I’m kind of homesick for a country
To which I’ve never been before;
No sad goodbyes will ever be spoken,
And time won’t matter any more.
Beulah land, I’m longing for you,
And, some day, on thee I’ll stand,
There my home shall be eternal.
Beulah land, sweet Beulah land.
I’m looking now across the river
Where my faith will end in sight;
There’s just a few more days to labor,
And then I’ll take my heavenly flight.
Clearly, for Squire Parsons, “Beulah” has become heaven. No longer is it the peaceful land this side of death, from which we await heaven; for Parsons, “Beulah” is the place where “my home shall be eternal.” Yes, he does use the imagery of looking longingly across the river–but, for Parsons, he’s looking across the river towards “Beulah.” For Parsons, Beulah IS the Celestial City.
So it’s hard telling just how Parsons came to this. Did he misunderstand the meaning of Beulah in its traditional Bunyanian context? Did he intentionally shift the meaning? I don’t know. But he’s still around, I’m sure you could ask him!
Some gospel-music scholars, most prominently David Fillingim, have argued that this kind of lyrical preoccupation with heaven (and analogs to it like “Beulah”) are part of a larger devaluation of this-worldly suffering: these songs, Fillingim says, “advocate the utter rejection of life in this world. This world has no value; therefore, worldly suffering is not to be taken seriously.” Suffering, Fillingim concludes, “is to be borne patiently, with the confidence that a better home awaits” (Redneck Liberation, 30-31).
In my own work I’ve argued against this proposition. In “Why Gospel Music Matters”, I tried to suggest that “Private doubt and uncertainty, fears and depressions about suffering and misfortune are publicly revalued” in gospel music “as the Christian’s cross to bear, not because ’suffering does not matter’ in southern gospel music but because these feelings matter so much (43).
A song like “Beulah Land” seems to be a good example of what I’m trying to say. Perhaps Parsons had in mind a glorious day of divine escape from this life into the next when he wrote “Beulah Land,” but of course one sign of successful creative works is that they detach from authorial intent and sustain a range of interpretations and meanings. In any case, it seems to me a diminishment of religious living to suggest that life as imagined by gospel music is just an existential holding pen for that great round up in the sky. Certainly the responses to gospel music - at least what I’ve witnessed in a lifetime of involvement with the music and felt for myself - are regularly far more complicated than the lyrics to the music would suggest when looked at in isolation.
No matter what a writer may intend, the practical effect of songs like this seems to be to give religious people a way of voicing a complex set of feelings born of the evangelical experience: not least of all, the paradox - felt most acutely during moments of suffering and spiritual disquietude - of believing in a better life in the hereafter but not yet being ready to give up living in the here and now.Email this Post