The song in V. E. Howard’s songbook is entitled “What Did He Do”; however, it is also titled after the first line, “O Listen to Our Wondrous Story”. The lyrics were written by James M. Gray in 1903, but it was set to music composed by William Owen in 1852. Some hymn books have “Anonymous Altered” in place of Gray’s name, but why is difficult to determine. Some hymnbooks stated that James Martin Gray actually altered the words rather than wrote them. Some hymnbooks state that O. F. Pugh arranged the work. An examination of texts from various hymn books supports Gray and Owen as the creators of this work.
James Martin Gray (1851-1935), Lyricist
James Martin Gray was born May 11, 1851 in New York City. He had a strong religious education, receiving both the Doctor of Divinity from Bates College in Maine and a Doctor of Laws from the University of Des Moines. He was a rector for the First Reformed Episcopal Church in Boston, MA. He would go onto to do publishing work with Moody Bible Institute, even serving as their President from 1925-1934. He published four editions of The Voice of Thanksgiving for Moody. He also served as one of the editors of the Scofield Reference Bible which is highly premillennial in nature. (I do not recommend anyone rely on the study notes in the Scofield Study Bible.) He is credited with 20 books and at least 92 hymn lyrics. “What Did He Do” is his most popular hymn. He was married to Amanda Thorne, and they had five children. Tragically, both the 5th child and the mother died during the delivery. James Martin Gray passed away on September 21, 1935 in Chicago, and he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City.
William Owen (1813-1893), Composer
William Owen Prysogol was born in Bangor, Caernarvonshire, Wales on December 12, 1813. He was also buried here when he died on July 20, 1893. He is buried in Caethro Chapel there. He worked in the Penrrhyn slate quarry with his father since age 10, but also composed some music too. He composed several songs and anthems. There are at least three tunes credited to him: BRYN CALFARIA, DEEMSTER and PRYSGOL. The tune for this hymn is DEEMSTER. He was criticized by some, which is perhaps why he sometimes worked with the penname Prysogol which was also a town he lived in at one time.
What Did He Do
Interesting is the expression that Jesus saved us from “eternal loss”. It is not difficult to find those who deny in the eternality of hell, even though they uphold the duration of heaven to be eternal. Jesus stated plainly, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46, NKJV.) While the New King James Version uses two English words for duration here—everlasting and eternal, both of these English words come from the same Greek word [G0166, aiōnios]. This Greek word means perpetual. It is very clear that the duration of punishment (hell) and the duration of life (heaven) are equal in length, eternal. This is a very sober concept, one which many seek to avoid and arrange other schemes for the fate of the wicked; e.g., purgatory or annihilation. Such other schemes, or designs, are not supported by the Bible. Ignoring this reality may be easy for some, but it does a serious disservice to those who are lost. A disservice that may in fact cost us our very souls too. We must tell people this “wondrous story”.
What is “our wondrous story”? That Jesus, one of the Godhead, left heaven to come save us from this eternal loss is an amazing matter. He was not an angel, but divine. We are very familiar with what some have called the golden text of the Bible—“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV.) What a wondrous story! Recently I heard a very excellent point about the verse which follows this text favored by multitudes—“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:17, NKJV.) The point was made that Jesus did not have to come to condemn the world then, because the world was already condemned. He came to save the world by preparing the way of salvation for those who will believe, repent of their sins, confess His name, put on His name through baptism, and live for Him. That indeed is a “wondrous story”. It is certainly a story to be listened to, but are we telling this story so that others may listen to it?
He is there in Heaven interceding for His saints. Will you allow Him to intercede for you by submitting to Him?
V. E. Howard, Editor, and Broadus E. Smith, Associate Editor, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Texarkana, TX: Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN: Praise Press, 1997.