Songs from Prison

How Many Doors Will Open; For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free!; Till All the Jails Are Empty

Who comes to mind when you think of prisoners and prisons? Perhaps violent criminals—murderers, rapists, child molesters—and you’re thankful they are locked up. On the other hand, you may think of prisoners, past and present, who have been unjustly imprisoned for their faith: heroes like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, or the apostle Paul in Rome.

In between these extremes are a host of prisoners—some justly incarcerated, some unjustly. The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, incarcerates more than 25 percent of all prisoners, more than any other country in the world. Michigan alone has more than 51,000 prisoners, up from 15,000 twenty-five years ago, largely because of longer sentences. Over 17,000 people, a third of all state employees, work for the Corrections Department. In Canada, approximately 17 persons per 10,000 of the adult population is incarcerated, according to the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics.

I was moved by Richard Rienstra’s article “We Are All Here” in RW 83 (March 2007), describing his son Troy, a prisoner who is becoming a pastor in prison. Troy’s life story is a beautiful testimony to the grace of God at work inside prisons. He can minister to his fellow inmates with great understanding since he is one of them.

Connections between churches within prison walls and outside the walls offer many opportunities for ministry, both for prisoners and for those who need support when they are released. There are now thirteen organized prison congregations (see,SD), including Baptist, Christian Reformed, Christian (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal, and Lutheran. More are planned. The Holy Spirit is already at work in the lives of individuals in the prison system, but like all other believers, these Christians need the support of the Christian community to encourage them on their faith journey. Central to that support is weekly worship.

It is easy for Christians outside the prison walls who do not have any immediate contact with incarcerated or recently released people to ignore these needs. But what would happen if we were to think of these individuals when we sing, “He sets the prisoner free”? Next time your congregation sings Wesley’s text “Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night” (“And Can It Be”), remember that you are singing the experience of every Christian—but remember that some of us know what that means physically as well as spiritually.

The three hymns that follow are all related to the theme of singing in prison. When you choose these hymns for worship in your congregation, consider introducing them with some mention of the double meaning present in the words. By God’s grace all Christians have been saved spiritually from prison, but some of our brothers and sisters in Christ are physically in prison. Whether or not they deserve to be there is not the issue. If that were Christ’s question, none of us would be set free. Rather, when singing these songs consider how everyone who has received mercy is also called to extend mercy to those in need. Then take these words you sing in worship and use them as a means for starting discussions at your church about restorative justice and the needs of those behind prison walls in the United States, Canada, and in countries around the globe.

How Many Doors Will Open

The first hymn is based directly on a passage in Acts 16 often referred to as “the story of the Philippian jailer.” Indeed, it is about him and also about Paul and Silas, but especially about the miraculous work of God. Paul and Silas spent the evening testifying to their God in song. When an earthquake freed them from their chains and gave them the opportunity to escape, they chose to remain. In so doing they made the words they’d sung earlier about God’s grace so compelling that the jailer and his family were saved. In a dramatic twist, the jailer and his family were set free, and as a result the prisoners experienced physical freedom. It’s quite a story, and has long been a favorite text for preaching.

Richard Leach, known to RW readers through other hymns as well (“The Bread Is Broken, You Are Whole,” also based on a New Testament passage, was included as the winning text in an RW hymn search; see RW 79), wrote this hymn to accompany a sermon he wrote on this passage. This newer text is included in his recently published collection, Tuned for Your Sake: Hymns 1987-2007 (Selah Publishing, Inc., 2007), and will also be published in Singing the New Testament (to be released in 2008 by Faith Alive Christian Resources). Here in Richard’s own words is the story behind his hymn text:

The first version of “How Many Doors” was written in 1989 after preaching a sermon on the passage in Acts the hymn is based on. I had gotten interested in hymnody and started writing hymn texts in 1987; for some years I had a routine of writing hymns on the lessons I preached on whenever possible. The sermon always came first, though, so the hymns were rarely finished before Sunday, and not sung, if ever sung at all, till three years later when the lesson recurred in the Lectionary!

I realized that the first version of “How Many Doors” was not too well-crafted so I set it aside. But it stayed on my mind because I was very fond of the Acts 16 sermon. I revised it and preached it several more times in different churches. (I worked as an interim pastor and moved around quite a bit in the 1990s.) A few years ago I decided the hymn text should also be reworked and shared, and a couple of revisions led to this final version.

The text itself is a fairly straightforward telling of the story, with emphasis on the freedom that comes to the jailer as well as to Paul and Silas, and the freedom that can come to us. The sermon began by asking how it was that anyone could sing in a prison cell, and suggested that the songs had best be learned early in life and known by heart. It went on to say that those songs come from singing communities, and that while Paul and Silas came from a community of song, the jailer came from a community of the sword. It concluded by giving thanks that Christians are people of the song and expressing the hope that all of us have such songs as Paul’s and Silas’s to draw upon. The hymn text complements the sermon, without the question that the sermon asks of where we get the songs we could sing in prison. That question continues to fascinate me, and I hope to do more reflection on it in the future.
(e-mail from Richard Leach; used by permission)

The text is set to a familiar tune, ST. THEODULPH, known especially with the text “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” That tune deserves to be sung more often than Palm Sunday! Another good tune possibility is AURELIA, known especially with “The Church’s One Foundation.” Leach’s text includes the word “foundation” four times, making a good connection to that other hymn celebrating Christ as our one foundation.

For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free!

“For Freedom Christ Has Set Us Free!” was written by a prison chaplain, Sylvia Dunstan. The text is based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5:1, 13-26) which uses many prison images that were also familiar to Dunstan: “cells,” “chains,” “shackles,” and more. Of all people, Paul knew about prisons. He had once worked to hunt down Christians and place them in prison. After his encounter with Christ, he became a prisoner himself more than once. And he continued to struggle against the sinful natural desires that were in conflict with living by the Spirit. So do we all—those outside as well as inside prison walls.

Sylvia Dunstan was an ordained pastor in the United Church of Canada and served for ten years as a prison chaplain. She was also an editor and writer of many articles on worship. I first met her in 1990 in Toronto when she introduced some of her texts at the annual conference of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada. Her work was so well received there that GIA published her first collection the following year: In Search of Hope and Grace. Another well-known hymn from that same collection is “Christus Paradox,” (“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd”), especially with the beautiful choral setting by Alfred Fedak (GIA G-5463). She began work on that hymn “after a particularly bad day at the jail.” Sylvia Dunstan died of cancer when she was only 38 years old; a second collection of seventeen additional hymns, Where the Promise Shines, was published by GIA after her death.

This is a song of encouragement. The next time you sing it in worship, consider an introduction that includes recognition of brothers and sisters in Christ who are literally behind prison walls, whether in North America or other places around the world.

The text is set to AZMON, a familiar tune, perhaps so familiar that a fresh approach to the second stanza may help people sing it with more attention to the text; therefore an alternative arrangement is included. This song will also be included in the upcoming collection Singing the New Testament (to be released in 2008 by Faith Alive Christian Resources).

Till All the Jails Are Empty

Our third song is still quite new; although this combination of text and tune is not yet found in North American hymnals, it deserves to be! “Till All the Jails Are Empty” was written by Carl Daw, one of the most respected hymn writers in North America. His hymn texts have been translated into many languages across the world. This song was published in his collection New Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Hope Publishing, 1996). Like the two hymns above, this one is closely related to a Scripture text. When Jesus went to the synagogue after his baptism and temptation and was asked to read, he stood up to read from Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners . . .” (Luke 4:18). Reflecting on this passage, Carl Daw asked: “If this Messianic passage shaped Jesus’ ministry, what does it imply for Christians today?” His answer came in this strong text.

Equally strong is the music composed specifically for this text by John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland. Its structure is unusual for a hymn, beginning in E minor and marching through two other keys before bringing the singer back to E minor, proclaiming that “God has work for us to do.”

This song sounds difficult but it isn’t—each line is a repetition of the preceding one on a higher pitch. The power and urgency of the message is bound to leave you almost breathless! The pianist must be firm, leading the song at a good clip, and accenting the quarter note beats (don’t rush them) on the long notes of that last line. Sing with full voice!

One final note on Christ’s message about coming to release the prisoners. I heard a sermon years ago that I’ve never been able to forget. It was about the time John the Baptist was in prison and sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Luke 7:19). How discouraged John must have been in prison to ask this question after his testimony at Jesus’ baptism! Jesus told the disciples to tell John what they had witnessed, a list that sounds similar to the commission of Jesus based on the Isaiah 61 text. Jesus mentions, for example, that the blind receive sight and the lame walk. But Jesus did not mention that prisoners were released. Some people, like John the Baptist, will spend a long time in prison, perhaps all the rest of their earthly days. May the church never forget them.


Worship Resources for a Prison Church

The following prayer and reflections are taken from sermons delivered by the influential Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) to inmates of a prison in Basel. The excerpts were selected by Richard Rienstra for an inaugural dedication service of a grant project involving several congregations in West Michigan (granted by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, with funding from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.). The grant project is named CONTACT: Calling Offenders to Network Together for Adoration, Confession, and Thanksgiving.

Scripture: Ephesians 4:1-6
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Sprit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

Song: “In the Lord, I’ll Be Ever Thankful” snc 220, WR 448

O Lord, Our God! We are met today to commemorate the fact that thy masterful and fatherly plan with the world and with ourselves has been carried out when thou didst permit our Lord Jesus Christ to be imprisoned that we may be free, to be declared guilty that our guilt may be taken away, to suffer that we may have joy, to be put to death that we may have life eternal. Left to ourselves we are lost. None of us deserved to be rescued, not one. Yet in thy great majesty and mercy thou hast made common cause with our misery and our sin in order to lift us up. How else can we show our gratitude than by comprehending and acknowledging this mighty deed? This can only happen when the same living Saviour who suffered for us, was crucified, died and was buried, now enters into our midst. Only when he speaks to our hearts and consciences, opening them to thy love and teaching us wholly to trust in thee and to live on thy love alone. Humbly yet confidently we would ask that this may come to pass in the power of the Holy Spirit.”
—Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, Harper Collins Publishers 1961, p. 75.

[Here offer prayers for those in prison, their families, victims of crime, and those who minister to them] In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

Song: “In the Lord, I’ll Be Ever Thankful”

Blessing and Passing of the Peace
May the peace of Christ be with you all.
And also with you.

Scripture: Romans 11:32
For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.


God has mercy on us. He says yes to us, he wills to be on our side, to be our God against all odds. Indeed against all odds, because we do not deserve this mercy, because, as we rightly suppose, he should say no to us all. You know what? He does not say no; he says yes. He is not against us; he is for us. This is God’s mercy. The one great sin for anyone right now would be to think: This is not meant for me . . . The one great sin from which we shall try to escape this morning is to exclude anyone from the “yes” of God’s mercy. Amen.
—Deliverance to the Captives, p. 87.


God’s purpose is not to debase us nor to put us to shame. I repeat: God is not against us, he is for us. . . . The arms of his eternal love are already outstretched when he makes us prisoners of disobedience. He does so in order to have mercy on all. He keeps us, the prisoners of disobedience, together like a shepherd keeps his flock. He keeps us in line and holds us in check. He gathers us into a community of our Lord Jesus Christ.
—Deliverance to the Captives, p. 90.


What is the meaning of thanksgiving? The Greek word used in the Bible signifies Eucharist. One acknowledges grace for what it truly is . . . an unexpected and underserved gift freely offered. . . . Yet thanksgiving has still another meaning. The term has been used since the beginning of the church to designate the Lord’s Supper, the communion of the people gathered around the table to eat real bread and drink real wine. . . . Of this community the crucified and risen Christ himself is both the host and the food, giving himself, his own life for us to eat and drink so that we may live.
—Deliverance to the Captives, p. 96.

Hymn: “And Can It Be” CH 347, PsH 267, TH 455, WR 366

Emily R. Brink ( is Senior Research Fellow for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and former editor of Reformed Worship.


Reformed Worship 87 © March 2008, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.