John R. Sweney
Transcribed from: Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers by J. H. Hall; 1914
Not every one who can write music can write such as will sway the multitudes and satisfy the demands of great occasions. The subject of our sketch was one of the most successful of these. Mr. Sweney has made his impress on the religious world. His music is sung everywhere, and if he had one characteristic more than another it was that of great power.
John E. Sweney was born in West Chester, Pa., December 31, 1837. He gave marked indications of musical ability at an early age. While yet a boy he began to teach music in the public school and to lead music in the Sunday-school. This musical work determined his whole future life. His love for music and his success in it led him to choose it for a profession. A while thus teaching and leading it was his custom to occasionally compose for his school.
At the age of nineteen he began the study of music in earnest under Professor Bauer, a celebrated German teacher. He took lessons on the violin and piano. About this time he was chosen leader of a choir, and was also in constant demand for children’s concerts and entertainments, as well as the conductor of a glee club.
At the age of twenty-two he was called to teach at Dover, Delaware, where he was successfully at work when the Avar broke out. He then took charge of the band of the Third Delaware Reghnent, and continued till bands were disbanded by the government. After returning from the war he was appointed Professor of Music at the Pennsylvania Military Academy, then located at West Chester, Pa. Previous to this time he had written several pieces for the piano, which were published. Three years after, the Pennsylvania Military Academy was removed to its present location, Chester, Pa., but at the solicitation of many friends he remained in West Chester, and put his energy into his teaching there, especially his band, until “Sweney’s Cornet Band” became famous in that part of the state.
About 1869 he was recalled to the Pennsylvania Military Academy, and moved to Chester, where he was professor of music in that institution for twenty-five years.
In 1876 the academy conferred on him the degree of Bachelor of Music, and in 1886, the degree of Doctor of Music was conferred on him by the same institution. In 1871, having connected himself with the church in Chester, he began the composition of sacred music, and soon became widely known, and was in great demand as leader of large congregations.
For many years he led the vast assemblies at the well-known summer meetings at Ocean Grove, N. J. He also had charge of the music at Lake Bluff, near Chicago; at New Albany, Indiana.; Old Orchard, Maine.; Round Lake, New York; Thousand Islands, and many other places; in fact, he was one of the most popular and successful song leaders in the country. It was a common saying among evangelists that ” Sweney knows how to make a congregation sing.”
For ten years or more he had charge of the music at Bethany Presbyterian Church and Sunday-school in Philadelphia, of which school the Hon. John Wanamaker was superintendent—one of the largest Sunday schools in the United States.
Mr. Sweney wrote over one thousand sacred songs. Among his most popular ones are : “In the Morning,” “Light after Darkness,” “Sunshine in the Soul,” “More about Jesus,” “Tell Me How,” “Oh, ’tis Glory,” “The New Song,” “I Will Shout His Praise in Glory,” etc., but the most popular and widely known, and the one that is sung in almost every language, is “Beulah Land” His first Sunday-school book, the “Gems of Praise,” was issued in annual numbers beginning in 1871 and finished in 1876. He was then associated largely with Mr. Wm. J. Kirkpatrick in issuing the following books: “The Garner,” “The Quiver,” “The Ark of Praise,” “Songs of Redeeming Love—Nos. 1 and 2,” “Joy to the World,” “Wells of Salvation,” “Gospel Chorus” (male voices), “Our Sabbath Home,” “Melodious Sonnets,” “Joyful Sound,” “On Joyful Wing,” “Precious Hymns,” “Quartette,” “Trio,” “Temple Trio,” “Revival Wave,” “Infant Praises,” “Emory Hymnal,” “Showers of Blessing,” “Temple Songs,” “Prohibition Melodist,” “Sunlit Songs,” “Radiant Songs,” Songs of Triumph,” “Glad Hallelujahs,” “Songs of Joy and Gladness—Nos. 1 and 2” “Hymns of the Gospel—New and Old” (published in London, England), two anthem books called—”Anthems and Voluntaries” and “Banner Anthems,” and in connection with the Hon. John Wanamaker, “Living Hymns” Mr. Sweney also Wrote a number of services and cantatas, and associated with Mr. Kirkpatrick a temperance cantata entitled, “The Water Fairies” He also edited a number of other books.
Mr. Sweney was editor or associate editor of about sixty books. He spent a busy life and was very popular. He was the right man in the right place. “Blessed is the man who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness” “Know thy work, and do it ; and work at it like Hercules.”
Mr. Sweney passed away peacefully in the presence of his wife and children, April 10, 1899.
A life well spent in the service of Sacred Song:
Mourn not the dead whose lives declare
That they have nobly borne their part,
For victory’s golden crown they wear.
Reserved for every faithful heart.