My first meeting with Dr. Towner was in the summer of 1886, when he came to Northfield to attend the general conference there. Mr. Moody had met him some time previously in Kentucky, and was so much pleased with his leadership and singing that, following an invitation to Northfield, he became a member of that group of singers and evangelists associated in the Master's cause.
The College Student Conference met that year, its sessions being held at Mount Hermon, the seat of the Boys' School, and Dr. Towner was selected to lead the singing. As that first conference proved of so much interest, it was followed the next year by another, and as each was of so much profit to the students, it was decided by the International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association, having it in charge, to make it an annual meeting. The accommodations at Hermon were not adequate to the growing number of students attending, and the meetings were transferred to Northfield where for many years thereafter they were held. It may be of interest to state that among the first delegates to these conferences were Robert E. Speer and John R. Mott, both of whom because of their extraordinary ability became distinguished throughout the Christian world.
Mr. Moody presided at those meetings, to which there was always a deeply serious and spiritual tone; at the same time never forgetting that he was once a young man, and that there should be some part of the day for recreation and games, so necessary to the delegation. On those occasions Mr. Moody was heart and soul with them, which had the effect of establishing him in their confidence and admiration. He was a great factor in impressing God's claims upon those young men, and his influence in their subsequent lives can never be measured.
It may here be noted that the General Conference for the deepening of the spiritual life had its beginning in the summer of 1882, at Northfield, and was the first of its kind ever held in this country. It was followed by many others, held in different states. It is of interest, too, that soon after the Student Conference became so helpful to young men, the International Committee of the Young Women's Christian Association decided to have a conference for young women college students, and as in the former case, it was the beginning of a movement along similar lines that spread all over the land. Mr. Moody presided at the sessions of this conference also and was an inspiration to the young women from year to year.
Another movement that had its beginning at Mount Hermon simultaneously with the Student Conference, is the Student Volunteer Movement, since become one of the greatest factors in the history of Foreign Missions. To perpetuate this event there has been erected in the school room at Hermon, where it had its beginning, a
bronze tablet with the following inscription:
"In this room in the month of July, 1886, during the First International Student Conference, the Student Volunteer Movement had Its Origin, and One Hundred Young Men Signified their Willingness and Desire, God Permitting, to Become Foreign Missionaries."
Dr. Towner continued for some years to conduct the singing for the Young Men's Conferences, and later, when the order was established, it became a part of my summer's work to conduct the singing for the Young Women's Conference. For some years Dr. Towner made Northfield his home, and always very acceptably to the people. It was during those summers at Northfield that I saw most of him, and where our friendship began.
An amusing experience in which Dr. Towner had a part illustrates Mr. Moody's habit of making use of his friends whenever they were available. He had an appointment to preach, one Sunday morning, in a little church a few miles from Northfield and insisted that Mr. Sankey, Dr. Towner, and myself accompany him and sing. Arriving at the church we entered in single file, Mr. Moody leading, Sankey, Towner, and myself following. There was a perfect gradation of stature, Mr. Moody being the shortest, probably about five feet eight, Mr. Sankey two inches taller, and I two inches taller than he, with Dr. Towner still two above me—a coincidence that caused a smile to spread over many faces.
Dr. Towner, like the other singers who were more or less under Mr. Moody's direction, occasionally assisted him in meetings when Mr. Sankey was not available; at other times he assisted in meetings conducted by others of the associated evangelists.
In 1893, Dr. Towner became director of the musical department of what has since become known as the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a position of responsibility he held until his death. Through his teaching and personal contact he impressed himself upon thousands of young men and women, who have gone out from that institution more or less imbued with the spirit of consecration he ever manifested, and with increased knowledge of the importance of music in all kinds of Christian activities.
During those years Dr. Towner wrote extensively, principally for the books he edited, and from the large number of songs that bear his name there are many that have become known the world over. "Trust and Obey," "Anywhere with Jesus," "Saving Grace," "Full Surrender," "Redeemed," and "Grace Greater Than Our Sin," are among his best and most useful compositions.
The origin of the first hymn named, Dr. Towner relates in Mr. Sankey's My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns:
"Some years ago Mr. Sankey was conducting a series of meetings in Brockton, Massachusetts, and I had the pleasure of singing for him. One night a young man rose in a testimony meeting and said, 'I am not quite sure—but I am going to trust and obey." I jotted down that sentence and sent it with the little story to the Reverend J. H. Sammis, a Presbyterian minister. He wrote the hymn and the tune was born."
As a composer of music for evangelistic purposes, Dr. Towner occupied a prominent place among writers. He was a very able leader of choirs and of large assemblies, and an impressive singer, possessing a well trained baritone voice of unusual compass and power and of smooth and pleasing quality, which he used to the best advantage and with blessing to multitudes wherever he sang.
In recognition of his services as director of the musical department of the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, he was honored with the degree of Music, in 1900, by the University of Tennessee. In early life, he held prominent positions as director of music in churches in Cincinnati and Covington, since which time his influence, through his various activities and by his compositions, became world-wide; therefore, his loss to the cause to which he gave the best of his years, is felt wherever the gospel has found its way.
Dr. Towner was born in Rome, Pennsylvania, March 5, 1850, and died in Chicago in his seventieth year. He was universally acknowledged as a musician of the first rank and a leader of unusual ability.
From George C. Stebbins: Reminiscences and Gospel Hymn Stories by Himself. New York: George H. Doran Company, ©1924.
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