When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder

He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.

—Revelation 3:5

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.

—1 Thessalonians 4:16

When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder
Author: James M. Black (1893)

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. [Refrain]

Let us labor 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. [Refrain]

Written by James Milton Black, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” has always been one of my favorite songs, and back years ago, when I was the song leader in my childhood church, I used to sing this song frequently. It is about not missing out on the eternal salvation of God inspired by the idea of The Book of Life mentioned in the Bible.

Born in 1856 in South Hill, New York, James Milton Black acquired an early musical education in singing and playing the organ. In his early twenties, Black moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he worked with the Methodist Episcopal church. During the week, he would teach music as a song leader while working as a Sunday school teacher and youth leader in his free time. In addition to all this work, he also spent time editing hymnals.

Black loved young people and would help those he could. One day, while passing through an alley, he met a ragged fourteen-year-old girl whose father was an alcoholic. Black invited her to his Sunday school and youth group, and she started to attend. However, one day when Black was making the roll call, he did not hear a response from the teenage girl. Each child was supposed to recite a Scripture verse when his or her name was called. But it was her silence that made Black realize a lesson. He said, “I spoke of what a sad thing it would be when our names are called from the Lamb’s Book of Life if one of us should be absent.” 

The idea of someone not being in attendance in heaven haunted Black, and he visited the child’s home. He found out she had pneumonia, so he called on a doctor to attend to her for pneumonia before leaving the girl to return home. When he arrived home, Black tried to look for a song that would fit the thought of a heavenly roll call, but he could not find one. An inner voice seemed to tell him, “Why don’t you write one.” And that is just what he did. Sadly, the young girl passed away a few days later. Black had the heartbreaking opportunity to explain in public how he came to write “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” when it was sung at the girl’s funeral.

The first stanza of the new hymn came to Black’s mind in full. Within fifteen minutes, the two following verses were already written down, and then Black turned to the piano. “I played the music,” he said, “just as it is found today in the hymn books, note for note, and I have never dared to change a single word or note of the song.” The lyrics of the song were first published in a collection called Songs of the Soul. Since then, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” has been translated into at least fourteen languages and sung worldwide in various Christian denominations. There are more than 500 versions available on such sites as Amazon, recorded by various artists such as Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Jim Nabors, and Willie Nelson, to the traditional tune. 

In 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill created a stir in the British press when he quoted the hymn in response to a question about when the Big Three (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill) were going to meet; the Winnipeg Free Press wrote: “Mr. Churchill, in one of his somewhat puckish moods, replied that he did not know, but, he added irreverently, ‘When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.'” The British press expressed surprise at Churchill, an Anglican, being familiar with a hymn more associated with Methodism, Presbyterianism, and other “chapel” denominations or the revival meetings, whereas the Free Press speculated that Churchill might well have heard the “catchy” tune in the street meetings held by the Salvation Army. He might also have remembered the lyrics from the 1941 movie Sergeant York.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

2 responses to “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder

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