William Howard Doane the Man of Melody

William Howard Doane was born in Preston, Connecticut, USA, February 3, 1832. He was to become one of the leading gospel songwriters of his era, writing more than 2,000 hymn tunes, and numerous cantatas. By the age of 14 he was conducting the choir of the Congregational school he attended, Woodstock Academy.

Converted a few years later, in his final year at school, he joined the Baptist Church (his mother was Baptist), where he served as a faithful layman for the rest of his life. For 25 years he was Sunday-School Superintendent and choir director at Mount Auburn Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Music was Doane’s ‘avocation’ (something done outside his vocation). He made his living by working for J.A. Fay & Co, which made woodworking machinery, where he excelled as a businessman. He became President of the large company.

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The music of his soul bubbled forth throughout his life. He composed his first piece at age 16 and in 1852 he was engaged as conductor at the Norwich Harmonic Society. His first published songs were for Sunday School use, reflecting his life-long interest in that ministry (as has been seen in other hymn-writers – such as Alfred Midlane 1825-1909 – see Jan 23, 2009 post).

Note the titles of his first book of songs, published in 1862, “Sabbath School Gems”. The second book, published two years later was “Little Sunbeams”, and in 1867 came perhaps the most popular Sunday-school book of its day, “Silver Spray”.

Doane’s first book of songs for adult use, “Songs of Devotion”, came in 1868 and was very popular.

Doane is noted for his creation of Christmas cantatas, which popularised the genre, especially through his work entitled, “Santa Claus”.

Doane married the daughter of his father’s business partner in Doane & Treat, cotton manufacturers. That union produced two daughters.

A personal friend of blind hymn-writer, Fanny Crosby, she would often ask him to compose a melody for words she had written. One evening, whilst she visited Doane’s home, they spoke of God’s nearness. Before retiring Miss Crosby penned the words:

I am Thine, O Lord, I have heard Thy voice,

And it told Thy love for me…

Next morning she asked Doane if he would compose the tune, which he did.

On the other hand, he sometimes composed a tune and asked Fanny Crosby to supply the words. In 1869 he mailed her such a tune, and as she later sat in a New York Mission, the words came to her:

Rescue the perishing,

Care for the dying …

On another occasion Mr Doane composed a melody and played it to Miss Crosby on a small organ. “Why,” she at once exclaimed, “that tune says Safe in the Arms of Jesus. I’ll see what I can do about it.” (Sankey’s Story of Gospel Hymns, page 263).

Jesus, Keep me Near the Cross was also written by Miss Crosby to one of Doane’s previously composed melodies.

The melody of Katherine Hankey’s Tell me the Old, Old Story came from Doane’s pen.

This highly successful Christian businessman gave large sums of money to further the spread of the gospel, including a music building at Moody Bible Institute. The Doane Memorial Music Building in Chicago, Illinois, was named after him.

He died on Christmas Eve, 24 December, 1915.

Dr Doane compiled some forty books, and wrote about twenty-three hundred songs, ballads, cantatas, etc, also a number of vocal and piano pieces in sheet form. Millions of people across the globe have sung Doane’s tunes, even though they would not know his name.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com