When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder

Words and music: James M. Black -1856 – 1938

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright, and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.

On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise,
And the glory of His resurrection share;
When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Let us labour for the Master from the dawn till setting sun,
Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care;
Then, when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder is an 1893 hymn with words and music written by James Milton Black (1856-1938). He is widely known only as the author of the words and music to this popular gospel song When the Roll is Called Up Yonder. He was, however, a very private person whose failure to leave much documentation about his work has frustrated musicologists for decades. The Methodists to whom he belonged have lamented that no photograph of him suitable for large-size reproduction in gospel song histories, for example, is known to exist. As a result every year the United Methodist Archives at Lycoming College expects to get at least one inquiry that begins, “I just discovered that James M. Black was a Methodist layperson from Williamsport, could you please tell me…”

I too tried hard to research about this man and came up with some more additional pieces mainly from the attempts of the Methodists at Williamsport to bring together all that is known about the elusive James M. Black and his influence on several other Williamsport persons interested in gospel music. It appears that Black had a gift for encouraging those with musical and literary abilities, and that the sum of all their efforts earn Williamsport a significant place in the annals of American gospel music. While any number of approaches could be used to tell this remarkable story, we present the material chronologically within a biographical sketch of the mysterious Mr. Black.

The story behind the hymn.

This hymn was written by James Milton Black born on this day, August 19, 1856 in South Hill, New York. He acquired an early musical education in singing and organ playing and knew such famous songsters of his day as Daniel Towner and John Howard. Around 1881, he moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania where he carried on Christian work through the Methodist Episcopal Church. Teaching music during the week, he was a song leader, Sunday school teacher and youth leader in his spare hours. In addition to all this work, he edited hymnals.

As a young man James Black was a Sunday school teacher in a church in Canada. One day he met a girl fourteen years of age, poorly dressed and the child of a drunkard. It was evident that she did not enjoy the nicer things of life that many teenagers enjoyed. Young Black was moved to invite her to attend Sunday school and to join the young people’s group. He thought this would be a great blessing and help to her, and might even win her to Christ.

One Sunday, when each member answered the roll call by repeating a Scripture text, the girl failed to respond. This situation brought the thought to Black’s mind that it would be a very sad thing if our names are called from the Lamb’s Book of Life in heaven and we should be absent. The thought, although not theologically sound, brought this prayer to the lips of Black: ‘Oh, God, when my name is called up yonder, may I be there to respond!’

He then longed for something suitable to sing, but found nothing in the books at hand. He closed the meeting that night and, while on his way home, was still wishing that there might be a song that could be sung on such an occasion. All of a sudden the thought came: ‘Why don’t you write it?’ He tried to dismiss the idea, thinking that he could never write such a song.

When Black reached his house, his wife saw that he was deeply troubled and questioned him about his problem, but he did not reply. He only thought of the song that he would like to write. All of a sudden, like a dayspring from on high, the first stanza came in full. He later said that in fifteen minutes he had composed the other two verses. He then went to the piano and played the music just as you will find it in the hymnbooks today- note for note. It has never been changed.

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more,
When the morning breaks eternal, bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder,
When the roll is called up yonder,
I’ll be there.

Couple of comments on this hymn and particularly not the two “Let us” commands/encouragements found in the third verse of this hymn:

“Let us labour for the Master from the dawn til setting sun” – This phrase reminded me that we all have kingdom work to do – we all need to labour for the Master. The fields are ripe for harvest, and the Lord needs workers to go into the field. But this kind of labour is not a “half-day’s” work. It is not a weekend project. No, this work is from the dawn till setting sun.

From the dawn till setting sun: Definition of from dawn to dusk or setting sun is an idiom. It is a figurative language refereeing to the period of the day when there is light; from the rising of the sun to the setting of the sun. The dawn of our lives is the early youthful days of our lives. The mornings of our lives are when we are in our twenties and early thirties. Then comes the midday of our lives and finally the afternoon and evening of our lives. We are called to do “labours of love” every day. We are also called to continue “working the fields” into the latter parts of our life. There is no retirement age from working in the Kingdom. The kind of work we do for the Lord may change. But there are always tasks to be done for the Master – even until the setting sun. We need to work for our God from our earliest days of our salvation till the very final moments in our old age.

“Let us talk of His wondrous love and care” – During the labouring time for our master, the hymn writer encourages us on what we should be talking about. I wonder how often we talk about our problems and our challenges in life, instead of talking about His wondrous love and care. I wonder how many unbelievers around us have no desire to become a Christian because there seems to be no joy and peace in our lives. If, however, our talk is filled with stories of God’s love, God’s care, and God’s provision, how many more would notice that and say “I want to serve a God whose love and care are wondrous.” Our talk – our words and our daily conversations – have an impact on those around us, so I encourage you to talk about how God has shown His great love to you. That kind of talk is contagious.

“When all of life is over and our work on earth is done”
This life we live has an end. It will one day be over. We will not live forever. The work we have to do on earth will also one day be done and there will be no more need to live for our life on earth is done and our work on earth is done. How often do we think this way. That we are no here for eternity and every minute must count. Do not waste your best moments. Work for the night comes when no man works. In the grave we do not work and have no chance to correct the wrongs we did when we lived. Now is the time to serve God and do His good will.

When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.– Note that the words say, “I’ll be there NOT I’ll be here. Here on earth is full of sin. We cannot just be in His presence with our here and now situation. I want to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, dressed in beauty not my own. I want to be there where my Lord wants me to be. Made Righteous by the work of Christ. This hymn reminds us that there will be a “roll call” in Heaven. God will open the Lamb’s book of life and read the names that are written there (Revelation 21:27). I’m glad today because I am confident that “when the roll is called up yonder,” my answer is “there,” not “here.” Because I am going to be “there.” I am confident I will be there, not because I have lived a perfect life. I am confident I will be there, not because I came from a family of Godly Christian people (although that is the case). No, I am confident because I know the Saviour, and I know that “He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that day.”

So, do you know anyone whose answer at the heavenly roll call will be “here” instead of “there?” Unfortunately, I do, and it is a reminder that there is a dying world out there with souls that don’t know the Lord, and it is convicting to me to share the love of God with others so that they might go where I am planning on going. I hope to see you say I am there not here.

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One Response to When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder

  1. Jimmy says:

    When the roll is called up yonder I want to be there and I’ll be there too with my love ones


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