John Harrison Tenney
1840 - 1918
One of the most prolific and popular songwriters
of our times is Mr. J. H. Tenney. His
writing has been confined chiefly to the
demands of Sunday-schools, churches, choirs, singing
schools and choral societies, and among this class of
musical people he has won for himself high rank. In
addition to the many books he has edited, his name
appears in almost every Sunday-school, church or
anthem book that has been issued for the last thirty or
forty years, and some of his gospel songs are sung by
all the prominent evangelists in the field. We have said
that he is a prolific writer. He began early and has
had little to hinder his steady application, and everything
to favor the prosecution of his work. His father
was a choir leader and an enthusiastic music lover, and
his mother was the leading soprano in her husband's
choir, and it was no wonder that the son was humming
tunes before he had learned to talk! Then, at the age
of eight, he could read plain music at saight, having
attended singing school, and it was not much later when
his favorite pastime was composing tunes (melodies) to
hymns that he found in "Watt's Select Hymns.'' He
would also write out these melodies on his slate or
pieces of paper.
John Harrison Tenney was born in Rowley, Essex
County, Mass., November, 22, 1840. Being born just
after the campaign of " Tippecanoe and Tyler too," he
was given the name John Harrison, after the successful
presidential hero. He was not the hearty, healthy lad
that loved romping and the sterner sports natural to
boyhood, but was of a delicate constitution, and his
preference ran rather to mental than to physical exercise.
At school he was a favorite with his teachers on account
of his studiousness and proficiency, and perhaps the
lack of mischievousness that is common to boys. He
may not have been so popular with the boys, as he did
not care so much for their rough-and-tumble sports,
but he was a favorite with his mother, who, by the way,
was a gifted mother in every sense of the word. Their
companionship was sweet and constant, and she knew
just how to sympathize with her tender, diffident boy,
and encourage him in his efforts and ambitions. Like
all successful men, he now more than ever appreciates
his indebtedness to his mother.
His school education consisted of that received at
the district schoolhouse during the winter months.
In the summer he worked on the farm and in the shoeshop,
for his father was a shoemaker as well as a
farmer. Perhaps this is one reason why Mr. Tenney
puts so much soul in his compositions. His evenings at
home were usually spent with singing books, practicing
in reading notes or singing favorite songs, and in
this way he learned by heart every tune and anthem in
his father's books. He also got hold of " Burrowes'
Primer," and from it learned something about harmony
and began to compose melodies and harmonize them.
Along in these times he became a subscriber to The
a paper that interested him greatly.
It was food for his hungry soul. He fairly devoured
its contents from month to month. By carefully
observing the music in it, he soon felt encouraged to try
his fortune in contributing to it. He prepared a few
pieces, and with a palpitating heart and trembling hand
dropped the sealed and addressed package into the postoffice
to await developments. On receiving the next
number of the paper his apprehensions were resolved
favorably—his efforts had been well received. The
editor said, among complimentary things in the correspondence
column, "it will be worth while for you to
study music." He afterwards sent many contributions
to the Pioneer
, most of which were published. In fact,
in one number of the paper nearly all the music was
from his pen, although some of it bore a nom de plume
He afterwards contributed freely to the New York
Mr. Tenney is a very modest man. In fact, it is
hard to get him to say enough from which to weave a
sketch. To give the reader an idea of how he looks at
it, we quote from an interview in which we asked for
some of the facts concerning his life: "I have never
done anything worth the telling, and all these laudatory
notices are offensive to me. But if you are to say anything
about me, I desire that it should be true and
fair." But the thousands who have received so much
pleasure and benefit from his musical compositions will
not agree with him that he has "never done anything
worth telling." Those who have sung or listened to
his gospel song, "Where Will You Spend Eternity?"
will vote that he has served his generation pretty well,
to say nothing of the popular songs entitled, "Jesus is
Passing this Way," "Ever Will I Pray," "Hallowed
Hour of Prayer," "My Anchor is Holding," "Beyond
the Swelling Flood," "Onward Christian Soldiers,"
and numerous others which have been sung all over
the land and are being sung now with such delight.
Our author estimates the value of his labors too
Mr. Tenney has edited or has been associate editor
of over thirty books, besides contributing to hundreds,
and in many instances contributing largely. His books
have been issued by so many different publishing houses
that it is difficult to get a full list. We will mention a
number of his more important works. "The Anthem
Offering," ''The Singing School Banner," "The American
Anthem Book," "The Crown of Praise," "Temperance
Jewels," "Golden Sunbeams," "Songs of
Joy," ''Songs of Faith," "Spiritual Songs, Nos. 1 and
2," "Gems of Gospel Song," "The Beacon Light,"
"Shining Light," "Sharon's Dewy Rose," "Sweet
Fields of Eden," "Sparkling and Bright," "American
Male Choir," etc., etc. This latter is his favorite
book, although he takes pride in his work in "The
American Anthem Book."
Mr. Tenney is a Christian—a deacon in the Congregational
Church at Linebrook, Mass. For many years
he gave his services as organist and choir leader.
In 1888 he married Miss Alice Potter, and two
daughters and a son bless their home.
He delights in farm life, and to spend the evenings
in giving vent to his musical nature in musical compositions.
We are sure our many readers will jom us in
assuring our friend that we feel very much his debtor
for the pleasure his delightful music has afforded us.
Source: Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers by J. H. Hall; 1914