Heroes of the Faith — Hymn composer Excell remembered for beloved arrangements

E.O. Excell (1851–1921) was a prominent composer, song leader, singer and publisher in the late 19th century and early 20th century. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his death.

Excell was born in Uniontown, Ohio, on Dec. 13, 1851. His father was a minister in the German Reformed Church.

In 1871, he married Eliza Jane Bell in East Brady, Pennsylvania. They had a son, William, in 1874. Excell supported his family for several years as a bricklayer and singing instructor.

J.B. Espy of East Brady Methodist Episcopal Church asked him (even though he wasn’t a Christian) to conduct music at his revival. He accepted, and a great revival followed with Excell being one of the many converts.

His life’s focus turned to sacred music. He studied music formally under George Root from 1877–1883 in Chicago. He took vocal training under Root’s son, Frederick. He served as the singer for many of the most famous evangelists of his day, including Dwight Moody. For 20 years, he sang at all of the revivals of evangelist Sam Jones throughout the United States and Canada until Jones’ death in 1906.

Excell was described as “a big robust six-footer.” He had an extraordinary vocal range that enabled him to solo as a baritone or tenor. He sang with expression and a sympathetic tone, which had a moving influence on audiences. His singing led many to Christ. He was a prolific composer authoring, composing or arranging more than 2,000 songs.

His arrangement of John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” has been the most widely used since the second half of the 20th century. It first appeared in his hymnbook Make His Praise Glorious (1900). He used the tune of the folk song “New Britain.” For Newton’s sixth verse, he substituted one he found in “A Collection of Sacred Ballads” (1790). It is the familiar “When we’ve been there ten thousand years….”

‘Count Your Blessings’

Excell also wrote the tune of the familiar hymn “Count Your Blessings.” The hymn was popular in Britain, and during the Welsh Revival of 1904–1905, the hymn was sung at every service.

A versatile writer, Excell compiled or contributed to 90 hymn books for various publishers over a 40-year publishing career. He started his own publishing company, E.O. Excell & Son, which published many hymn books.

Excell became ill while working with British evangelist Gipsy Smith in a revival in Louisville, Kentucky. He spent 30 weeks in Wesley Hospital in Chicago. He died on June 10, 1921.

Editor’s Note – Joanne Sloan, a member of First Baptist Church, Tuscaloosa, has been a published writer of articles and books for 30 years. She has a bachelor’s degree double majoring in history and English from East Texas State University (now Texas A&M–Commerce) and a master’s degree specializing in English from the University of Arkansas (1978).

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