Keeping the Hymns Close By

When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder

Author &Composer – James M. Black, 1856 – 1938
Published in 1894

Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep; but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. I Corinthians 15:51, 52

James M. Black

James Milton Black, author and composer of this hymn, was born in New York on August 19, 1856 but lived, worked and died in Williamsport, PA. Following an early, musical education in singing and organ playing, Black taught singing in schools. He was also the editor of more than a dozen gospel songbooks. His most popular collection was a book entitled, Songs of the Soul, published in 1894. “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” first appeared in that book, and soon the hymn became widely used in evangelistic endeavors, both in this country and in Great Britain.

Mr. Black was an active layman throughout his life, being especially involved in the social concerns of his church and community as well as in the ministries of the Sunday school and youth work. He gives the following account of the writing of this hymn:

While a teacher in the Sunday school and president of a young people’s society, I one day met a girl, fourteen years old, poorly clad and a child of a drunkard. She accepted my invitation to attend the Sunday school and join the young people’s society. One evening at a consecration meeting, when members answered the roll call by repeating Scripture texts, she failed to respond. I spoke of what a sad thing it would be when our names are called from the Lamb’s Book of Life, if one of us should be absent: and I said, “O God, when my own name is called up yonder, may I be there to respond.” I longed for something suitable to sing just then, but I could find nothing in the books. We closed the service, and on my way home I was still wishing that there might be a song that could be sung on such occasions. The thought came to me, “Why don’t you make it?” I dismissed the idea, thinking that I could never write such a hymn. When I reached my home, my wife saw that I was deeply troubled and questioned me; but I made no reply. Then the words in the first stanza came to me in full. In fifteen minutes more, I had composed the other two verses. Going to the piano, I played the music just as it is found today in the hymnbooks, note for note, and I have never cared to change a single word or note of the music since.

The subsequent death of the girl from pneumonia, after an illness of just ten days, was a dramatic finale to this account and gives poignancy to this “roll call” song. But through this experience, these words with their accompanying music were born; they have since found an important place in the pages of our hymnals and in the lives of God’s people.

Taken from 101 More Hymn Stories Copyright © 1985, 2013 by Kenneth W. Osbeck. Published by Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI. Used by permission. All rights reserved.