Hymnody: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder”

James Milton Black (1856–1938) was an American hymnist, youth leader and Sunday school teacher. It is said that Black had a great passion for reaching children with the gospel.

One day, while on his way to a meeting, Black cut through an alleyway in order to save time. There, sitting on the porch of a very run-down house, he encountered a fourteen-year-old girl, poorly dressed, the daughter of a drunkard. He struck up a conversation with her and invited her to attend his Sunday school class. She said that she would like to attend, but felt that she did not have the appropriate attire. Black purchased some clothes for her with his own money so that she would feel comfortable attending Sunday school.

The girl began to attend Sunday school on a regular basis, always sitting in the same spot. Black’s custom in Sunday school was to take roll call, and students were expected to indicate their attendance by reciting a memory verse. The girl’s name was called, and met with silence. Again her name was read from the roll, but there was no response.

Black was struck with a sudden thought as he pondered the silence: What if God issued the final roll call and this girl did not answer? Looking at his class, he suddenly thought how sad it would be if, when God issues the divine roll call at the end of the age, someone in the class should be absent.

Concerned about her absence, Black went to her home after class and found her in bed, seriously ill. He called his own doctor to come see her, and the doctor informed him that she had a serious bout of pneumonia. In days before antibiotics, pneumonia more often than not led to death.

When he arrived home, Black began to search through his music to find a song that might fit the theme of the heavenly roll call, but he could find none. Determined to write one himself, he sat at his piano and, in a single sitting, penned the words and composed the music to “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

Just a few days later, Black had the sad opportunity to explain the story behind the song when it was sung at the funeral of the little girl who inspired it.

The lyrics of this song look forward to the day, at the end of time, when Christ returns and calls his people to be his own. It contains no direct Scripture citation, but the concept of Christ’s return for his people is its story.

1 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.

 

2 On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,
and the glory of his resurrection share;
when his chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,
and the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

 

3 Let us labour for the Master from the dawn till setting sun,
let us talk of all his wondrous love and care;
then when all of life is over and our work on earth is done,
and the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

When the roll is called up yonder,
when the roll is called up yonder,
when the roll is called up yonder,
when the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

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