Hymn Story: "In the Sweet By and By"

May 25, 2022 | Zach Young

As we gather in the Fellowship Hall this Sunday to enjoy our Memorial Day Weekend breakfast and worship service, we will set aside time to remember our brothers and sisters from the FBC family who have gone to be with the Lord in the past year. I always like to conclude that time of remembrance with a hymn that turns our gaze toward eternity, and reminds us that the saints who have gone before are absent from the body and present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).

"In the Sweet By and By” is one of my favorite hymns about heaven. It is beautiful in its simplicity, with a folk-like melody that all ages can sing well. The first two stanzas anticipate what we will experience upon entering heaven, but the third stanza is somewhat unique in that it returns us to the present, where we are today. It reminds us that our days on earth are “hallowed” by numerous blessings, the most important of which is the “glorious gift of His love.” Though it is right and good to wait with expectancy, we must never forget that God is the One who sustains us in our journey toward heaven and overwhelms our days with good. 

The hymn has a fascinating story surrounding its composition. Rather than attempting a summary, here is the full account from Then Sings My Soul, a collection of hymn histories by Robert J. Morgan.


In 1868, a pharmacist named Sanford Fillmore Bennett, 31, was filling prescriptions and handling sales at his apothecary in Elkhorn, Wisconsin. His friend Joseph Webster entered the store. Joseph was a local musician, vocalist, violinist, and amateur composer who suffered from periods of depression The two men had occasionally collaborated on hymns and songs, Sanford writing the words and Joseph the music.

On this particular day, Joseph was unusually blue and his face was long. Looking up, Sanford asked, “What is the matter now?”

                “It’s no matter,” Joseph replied, “it will be all right by and by.”

An idea for a hymn hit Sanford like a flash of sunlight. Sitting at his desk, he began writing as fast as he could. The words came almost instantly. Two customers entered the drugstore, but no attempt was made to assist them—Sanford was too absorbed in his poem—so they sallied over to the stove and visited with Joseph. Finally, Sanford rose and joined them, handing a sheet of paper to his friend.

                “Here is your prescription, Joe,” he said. “I hope it works.” Webster read the words aloud:            

                                There’s a land that is fairer than day,

                                And by faith we can see it afar;

                                For the Father waits over the way,

                                To prepare us a dwelling place there.

                                In the sweet by and by,

                                We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

                                In the sweet by and by,

                                We shall meet on that beautiful shore.

                Instantly, a tune suggested itself, and Joseph jotted down some notes. Picking up his fiddle, he played his melody over a time or two, then said to the others, “We four make a good male quartet. Let’s try the new song and see how it sounds.”

                As “Sweet By and By” was being sung for the first time, another customer, R. R. Crosby, entered the store. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I never heard that song before but it is immortal.”

                He was right. For over a hundred years we’ve been singing an immortal hymn that was written in less than thirty minutes in a drugstore.