Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus
Helen Lemmel (1863-1961), a gifted singer, was born in England to a Methodist minister and his wife. Her family moved to the United States when she was 12 years old. Her parents recognized her musical gifts, and made it possible for her to study with good teachers.
I have had some difficulty piecing together the sequence of Lemmel’s life, but I think it went something like this:
• She moved to Seattle in 1904 (age 41), where she served as the music critic for the Seattle-Post Intelligencer for three years.
• She went to Germany to study music, and stayed there four years.
• Upon her return to the United States, she had a successful concert career—and also taught music for a number of years at the Moody Bible Institute.
• She actively supported Billy Sunday’s evangelistic ministry, and wrote “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” in 1922 to be used in those meetings.
The song was inspired by a tract written by Lilias Trotter, a missionary to Algeria. Trotter was writing about the difficulty of maintaining focus while living in a world that provides us with so many choices. She gave this prescription for keeping one’s life moving in the right direction:
Turn your soul’s vision to Jesus, and look and look at Him,
and a strange dimness will come over all that is apart from Him.
Lemmel wrote more than 500 hymns, but “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus” is the one that has continued to find its way into modern hymnals—and into human hearts. As is true of so many popular hymns, it holds out a promise of Jesus’ help for troubled souls.
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.
• After retiring, Lemmel moved back to Seattle, where she lived until her death at age 97 in 1961.
While researching this article, I came across a couple of web sites that said that Lemmel had married a European man, but that he abandoned her when she lost her sight. I have been unable to verify her marriage or that she was blind—or to determine exactly when and where she lost her sight. However, there is a good deal of irony in the possibility that a blind woman wrote “Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus.”
While this song was inspired most directly by Lilias Trotter’s tract, it also brings to mind several scriptures:
• “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).
• “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
• “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
• “Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ … But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31, 33).
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2015 Richard Niell Donovan