In 1887, Anthony J. Showalter was in Harstelle, Alabama, leading a singing school in a church. Afterwards he gathered up his hymnbooks and returned to his boardinghouse room. Two letters had come and the young men from South Carolina, who wrote were heartbroken, each having lost his wife. He looked for a verse to use to end his replies, and found Deuteronomy 33:27:
“The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms ….”
He thought about the words of that verse and the chorus of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” came to mind. He finished his letters and then wrote to Elisha Hoffman, telling him he had the chorus, but did not have any verses. Pastor Hoffman sent back the verses and Professor Showalter wrote the music.
Elisha Hoffman published the hymn in 1887 in the Glad Evangel for Revival, Camp and Evangelistic Meeting Hymnal.
The hymn has appeared in over 1000 hymn books and translated in just about every language.
The actual uncredited composer of the music was Sam E. Duncan, who was a student at Bridgewater College, near Harrisonburg, Virginia, under Professor of Music, Anthony Showalter. Sam was given an assignment in class to write music to the poem. That evening the teenager wrote the tune. Anthony Showalter was Sam's uncle, and the piece along with several others was later published under the name of the professor, and mention of the students who did the composing was not made. A bronze plaque was made commemorating his composition of the music of the hymn in the Oak Hill Brethren Church, of which he was a charter member in 1900.
Those of you who have taken care of animals know that there are times when you must carry those animals somewhere. Usually, they do not want to go, even though they need to go with you to stay healthy. Moses was speaking these words that this hymn comes from in a final blessing on Israel before his death. The Israelites were shepherds. They each had their sheep to take care of, and other animals. They understood what Moses meant when he said the everlasting arms are underneath. He did not mean that they were around us, supporting us in times of trouble, but underneath us, carrying us in hard times. Some of us have seen drawings of God's hands holding us. It is not His hands, but his arms holding us. We need not be afraid of being dropped. God's arms are strong enough to carry us through the most difficult times in the most difficult places. All we need to do is trust Him, and relax so we are not so stiff, and thus, make ourselves easier to carry!
The Ambassador Book of Great Hymn Stories (Belfast, North Ireland: Ambassador Publications, 2001), pp. 86-87.
Shirley Donnelly, “Much History on Hand at Duncan Rites.” The Beckley Post-Herald (Beckley, West Virginia) Sept. 22, 1960, page 4, columns 3,4.
Shirley Donnelly, “Two Old Hymns Have Local Connection.” The Beckley Post-Herald (Beckley, West Virginia), May 21, 1968, page 4, columns 5-7.
Paul Eckert, Steve Green's MIDI Hymnal: A Complete Toolkit for Personal Devotions and Corporate Worship., Electronic ed. (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1998).
Robert J. Morgan, From This Verse: 365 Scriptures That Changed the World, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), January 29.
Robert J. Morgan, More Real Stories for the Soul. electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000)
Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990), p. 87.
Helen Salem Rizk, Stories of the Christian Hymns (Cincinnati, Ohio: Abingdon Press, 1986), p. 24.
Wayland, John Walter, Men of Mark and Representative Citizens of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Virginia: portraits and biographies of men and women (Staunton, Virginia: McClure Co., 1943) p. 428.