The popular hymn “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” is familiar to most American churchgoers. Its origin can be traced back to many decades – 1893 to be exact.
Ever since then, there are already over five hundred versions available on such sites as Amazon, recorded by various artists like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, and Jim Nabors, to the traditional tune. Its lyrics have even been set to new music by contemporary gospel artists like Doris Johnson.
But do you know the story behind this song?
The Story Behind This Popular Hymn
Written by James Milton Black, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” is about not missing out on the eternal salvation of God inspired by the idea of The Book of Life mentioned in the Bible.
“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more. And the morning breaks, eternal, bright, and fair. When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore, and the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there,” the song goes.
Born in 1856 in South Hill, New York, James Milton Black acquired an early musical education in singing and organ playing, even knew few famous songsters of his day. In his early twenties, Black moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he continued his Christian work through the Methodist Episcopal church. During the week, he would teach music as a song leader while working as a Sunday school teacher and youth leader in his free time. In addition to all this work, he also spent time editing hymnals.
Black loved young people so much that he would always try to win them for Christ. One day, while passing through an alley, he met a ragged fourteen-year-old girl whose father was an alcoholic. Black invited her to his Sunday school and youth group, and she started to attend.
However, one day when Black was making the roll call, he did not hear a response from the teenage girl. Each child was supposed to recite a Scripture verse when his or her name was called. But it was her silence that made Black realize a lesson. He said, “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.”
When he arrived home, Black tried to look for a song that would fit the thought of a heavenly roll call, but he could not find one. An inner voice seemed to tell him, “Why don’t you write one.” And that is just what he did.
The first stanza of the new hymn came to Black’s mind in full. Within fifteen minutes, the two following verses were already written down, and then Black turned to the piano. “I played the music,” he said, “just as it is found today in the hymn books, note for note, and I have never dared to change a single word or note of the song.”
The lyrics of the song were first published in a collection called Songs of the Soul. Since then, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” has been translated into at least fourteen languages and sung worldwide in various Christian denominations.
“I played the music just as it is found today in the hymn-books, note for note, and I have never dared to change a single word or a note of the song,” he said.
As for the girl whose absence at roll call had inspired the song, Black found her dangerously ill at home. She was diagnosed with pneumonia, but since that was before the days of antibiotics, death was highly likely.
Sadly, she passed away a few days later. Black had the heartbreaking opportunity to explain in public how he came to write “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” when it was sung at the girl’s funeral.
Tune in and watch one of our favorite covers of this popular hymn by Bill and Gloria Gaither in the video below.
Bill & Gloria Gaither, James Black, Jim Nabors, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson