Thursday, August 8, 2019

A Great Hymn with roots in my hometown

by Kathleen L. Maher

I have written on a few occasions about 19th Century history as it touched my hometown Elmira, NY. This tie-in to my local history took me to an unexpected turn, and one of my all time favorite hymns.

Famous hymn writer and revivalist Civilla Durfee Martin traveled the east coast with her husband Walter, writing songs for revival meetings. Dr. Walter Stillman Martin earned his degree from Harvard and preached as an ordained Baptist minister. In 1905 their travels took them to Elmira. Staying with a married couple, Mr and Mrs. Doolittle, Civilla felt inspiration strike. 

Both of the Doolittles suffered great physical conditions which left the Mrs. bedridden for two decades, and the Mr. confined to a wheelchair. But it did not limit the couple's devotion to the Lord or to one another.. Mr. Doolittle wheeled himself to work, and around the house to take care of his bride, and their affection for one another filled the Martins with awe. Asked what gave them both such cheer in the midst of their adversity, Mrs. Doolittle responded that her great faith in God gave her bright hope. She said "His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me."

That wonderful phrase Mrs. Doolittle of Elmira, NY had spoken turned in Civilla Martin's mind. The words to that beloved hymn His Eye is on the Sparrow sprang from this humble woman's testimony of God's great faithfulness, and overnight, Mrs. Martin sent the lyrics to the man who would set it to melody, Mr. Charles Gabriel.

Matthew 6 scribes Jesus' words in the sermon on the Mount. "Look to the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." And again in Matthew 10, Jesus says "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And yet not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father noticing... Fear ye not therefore, for you are of more value than many sparrows."

I am personally encouraged by the Doolittles' faith and the beautiful song inspired by it that has remained a popular hymn for over a century.


  1. Thanks for the post! I love knowing how one of my favorite hymns was inspired!

  2. Kathleen, this was a favorite hymn in my home growing up. Thank you for sharing.

  3. I love this hymn and heard it on the radio just yesterday as I ran errands. Sang right along with it. Thanks for this lovely story of its background.