Spirit & Heritage In Song – “Whiter Than Snow” c. 1872


Spirit & Heritage In Song is a series highlighting Traditional American Music.

In the last half century many of these traditional songs have been forgotten in the crush of contemporary music and international cultural influences. Yet these songs, ballads, melodies and hymns reflect the events, cultural backgrounds, aspirations, land and faith that make up the soul of the American People far more than the strains of moderne music that have washed upon the nation’s shores. This series is offered as a reminder of the Spirit of America as given voice in music.


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Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Psalm 51:7

Whiter Than Snow

Though we know something of the authors of this hymn, not much is recorded about the history of why they chose to write it. Plenty has regarding the Bible verses it is based on, and the ancient, oft told story of Israel’s King David and his remorse of a grave sin that would, as recorded cost him a son and a shame that would never be forgotten.

King David poured out his sorrow in this prayer, asking for God’s forgiveness which he was confident would cleanse his dark sins “whiter than snow”. David pleads for forgiveness after he committed adultry with Bathsheba, compounding the error by sending her husband Uriah to the front lines of the army where he was slain. David pleads, “Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.”


The Jewish prophet Isaiah later in history wrote with similar metaphor of forgiven sin, a concept that became the heart of this song:

Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.”
Isaih 1:18


The hymn text was written by James Nicholson, who worked as a clerk in the post office in Philadelphia. He was active in the work of the Wharton Street Methodist Episcopal Church. The hymn was first published in a pamphlet titled “Joyful Songs” in 1872. The hymn’s popularity greatly increased with its inclusion in the well-known Gospel Hymns series published by Ira Sankey and Philip Bliss. CyberHymnal.com


The music was written by William Gustavus Fischer. Fischer was a son of a German im­mi­grant, who showed mu­sic­al abil­i­ty at an early age. When he was eight years old, he be­gan sing­ing in a Ger­man church in Bal­t­imore. He learned to read mu­sic in a church sing­ing class, and af­ter­wards stu­died pi­ano and or­gan. He learned book­bind­ing at J. B. Lip­pin­cott’s in Phil­a­delphia, Penn­syl­van­ia, but spent his even­ings stu­dy­ing and prac­tic­ing music. He was an ex­per­i­enced train­er and lead­er of large bo­dies of sing­ers of all ages, and was much sought af­ter to lead choirs and chor­us­es in sac­red music in Phil­a­del­phia. He al­so taught sing­ing, pi­ano and mu­sic the­ory. He was close­ly con­nect­ed with Welsh mu­sic fes­tiv­als, and di­rect­ed the com­bined Welsh So­ci­e­ties at the bi­cen­ten­ni­al of the land­ing of Wil­liam Penn (founder of Penn­syl­van­ia).

From 1858-1868, Fischer was Pro­fes­sor of Mu­sic at Gir­ard Coll­ege. Before leav­ing Gir­ard Coll­ege, he start­ed in the pi­ano bus­i­ness, where he built up one of the most pros­per­ous piano houses in the count­ry. He was part­ner with John E. Gould until Gould’s death in 1875. From that time, Fischer was sole pro­pri­e­tor of the bus­i­ness for a num­ber of years, when he took his old­est son, Charles, into part­ner­ship. He fin­al­ly re­tired in 1898, and was suc­ceeded by his son. CyberHymnal.com


The famous British minister Charles H. Spurgeon wrote a moving sermon on the subject of David’s experience of sin and forgiveness.
A Sermon
Published on Thursday, November 30th, 1911,
At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington,
On Thursday Evening, January, 11th, 1866.

“Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”—Psalm 51:7.
“I DARESAY you have most of you heard of a little book which an old divine used constantly to study…..If we consider David’s case when he wrote this Psalm, we shall see that he was very black. He had committed the horrible sin of adultery, which is so shameful a sin that we can only allude to it with bated breath.”
Read more at The Wordless Book


The hymn has been a favorite of Christians around the world, offering comfort and hope for forgiveness of past wrongs, sung in a wide variety of languages – see below.


Whiter Than The Snow

Traditional Version


Whiter Than The Snow

Contemporary Variation


Whiter Than Snow

Lyrics in Navajo


Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy

Paul David Tripp


See other songs of the American Spirit in History and at Music



Lord Jesus, I long to be perfectly whole;
I want Thee forever to live in my soul.

King David and Uriah

Break down every idol, cast out every foe;
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


Whiter than snow, yes, whiter than snow.
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Lord Jesus, let nothing unholy remain,
Apply Thine own blood and extract ev’ry stain;
To get this blest cleansing, I all things forego—
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


Lord Jesus, look down from Thy throne in the skies,
And help me to make a complete sacrifice.
I give up myself, and whatever I know,
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


Lord Jesus, for this I most humbly entreat,
I wait, blessèd Lord, at Thy crucified feet.
By faith, for my cleansing, I see Thy blood flow,
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


Lord Jesus, Thou seest I patiently wait,
Come now, and within me a new heart create;
To those who have sought Thee, Thou never saidst “No,”
Now wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.


The blessing by faith, I receive from above;
O glory! my soul is made perfect in love;
My prayer has prevailed, and this moment I know,
The blood is applied, I am whiter than snow.



Plow & Hearth


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