A Newsletter of Opinion on Current Australian Christianity

Robert Harkness – 1

Robert Harkness - young

Robert Harkness created the Christian music style still used today.

Who was Robert Harkness?  Good question.  He was an Australian Christian, born in Bendigo in 1880 into a comfortable family whose father owned a metal foundry.  He grew up to become the pianist to accompany the evangelistic partnership of Reuben Torrey and Charles Alexander in their world tours from 1902 to 1914 when World War 1 broke out.

From 1902 until his death in 1961 Harkness is credited with writing around 2500 hymns and sacred songs, some very few of which are still sung today, which is a great pity.  He deserves not to be forgotten.

Some of his most well-known songs still popular in the twenty first century include: “He Will Hold Me Fast”, “When I See My Saviour” and “Why Should He Love Me So?”

How he became associated with Torrey and Alexander is a fascinating story.  Torrey had left his song-leader Alexander to find his own way to Melbourne, Australia, to conduct a united mission there.  Due to a misunderstanding Alexander arrived in Melbourne without any introductory correspondence from Torrey and had to introduce himself to an originally unreceptive Melbourne mission committee.

Fortunately Alexander’s friendly and outgoing personality won the support of the committee which was eventually very receptive of Torrey and his song leader.  The mission in Melbourne in 1902 was a great success in terms of mass evangelism, owing to the working of God with the powerful straightforward preaching of Torrey and the individual soul-winning activities as well as the magnetic song leading of Alexander.

Enter Robert Harkness.  When the mission team visited Bendigo it had been arranged by the local Churches’ committee that a different pianist should play on each of the four nights the team would stay.  Robert’s father, Abraham, who was a prominent Christian in the town as well as a Justice of the Peace and later mayor, “volunteered” his 22-year old son’s name as one of the accompanists since he was the Church organist at the family’s Church, Golden Square Wesleyan (later Methodist).

Robert was rostered to play on the first night for the large choir conducted by Charles Alexander.  It should be noted here that young Robert was a bit of a smart aleck who was not kindly disposed to mass evangelism and had only agreed to play to please his godly parents and elder sisters who, unknown to him, had been praying for him.

Alexander introduced a song never before seen by Harkness who played it with ease. His absolutely brilliant grand piano-playing skill allowed him to sight read the music once then drop the book at his feet while he ad-libbed an accompaniment to the choir and audience singing.

His style of accompaniment is known as a form of “stride” where the pianist plays big chords in the right hand and jumps between octaves and chords in the left hand.  It is fascinating that Harkness later taught pianists to play stride in exactly the same way people were being taught in hymn playing classes in college 100 years later.  This was a style unknown in Christian music at the time and eventually revolutionised gospel music right throughout the world.

When Alexander realised what Harkness was doing, instead of being annoyed, he turned and encouraged the young would-be rebel to continue with his accompaniment.

NEXT ISSUE – How Robert Harkness was converted.

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