Elisha Albright Hoffman was born May 7, 1839, in Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania. Hoffman’s parents, Francis and Rebecca Hoffman, were of German descent. His father worked as a minister in the Evangelical Association for more than 60 years. This group was founded in 1800 by the Rev. Jacob Albright, a German-speaking Christian of Pennsylvania. Albright was influenced by John Wesley and the Methodist movement.
Hoffman never attended a music school. He was apparently a natural musician with his musical direction and education obtained from his parents at home during their daily family worship time and hymn singing or from his experiences at his father’s church. It was during those times that he developed a love for sacred music and a belief that singing was a natural function of the soul, used to express his love for his Savior.
Hoffman attended public school in Philadelphia and graduated from Central High School. He then attended Union Seminary in New Berlin, Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, he began working with the Evangelical Association’s publishing house in Cleveland, Ohio. After serving in this position for 11 years, he followed his father’s footsteps and surrendered his life to the preaching of the gospel. He was ordained by the Presbyterian Churches in 1873, at the age of 34. From 1880 until his retirement in 1922, Hoffman pastored several churches in Cleveland and Grafton, Ohio; Benton Harbor, Michigan; and Central Illinois. His longest ministry position was held at the Benton Harbor Presbyterian Church in Michigan where he served as Pastor for 33 years.
It was during these years in ministry that Hoffman composed the bulk of his more than 2,000 hymns. Many of these hymns composed by Hoffman are still being used today. Among his most popular and widely recognized songs are: What a Wonderful Saviour!, Are You Washed in the Blood?, No Other Friend Like Jesus, I Must Tell Jesus, and Is Your All on the Altar? Hoffman also assisted in the compilation and editing process of 50 different song books.
In the majority of his compositions, Hoffman is the author and composer of both the words and music. In his songs, he sought to create music for congregational worship. According to Hoffman, a hymn is “a lyric poem, reverently and devotionally conceived, which is designed to be sung and which expresses the worshipper’s attitude toward God or God’s purposes in human life. It should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.” This is most evident in his recounting of how he was led to write I Must Tell Jesus. As he often did as a Pastor, he spent hours visiting those who could not come to the services. One day he was visiting and talking with people from the poorer communities. He was visiting with a poor mother who was in much mental suffering and distress. As was his habit, he prayed with her and read the Bible but she remained in much mental distress. He then suggested the best she could do was take it to Jesus. He urged her to “take it to Jesus and tell Him of her sorrows.” As they prayed together, he said he sensed a relief coming over her spirit as she told Jesus of all her trials, heartaches, and sorrows. He said that he carried that with him the rest of the day and later was able to capture that memory in song.
While his ministry in the churches where he served was fruitful, his songs continue to reach and preach to many thousands who never heard his voice. Elisha Hoffman was 90 years old when he died November 25, 1929, in Chicago, Illinois. During his life, he composed over 2,000 hymns, and edited 50 gospel song books. What a song service we could have with: Are You Washed, What A Wonderful Savior, Glory to His Name, Is Thy Heart Right with God?, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, When I See the Blood, Is Your All on the Altar?, and, of course,
I Must Tell Jesus
I must tell Jesus all of my trials;
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In my distress He kindly will help me;
He ever loves and cares for His own.
Biography of Gospel Song and Hymn Writers; Jacob Henry Hall; Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, NY; 1914.
Gospel Songs and Their Writers; Charles H. Gabriel; The Rodeheaver Company, Chicago, IL; 1915.
Hymn Stories For Programs; Ernest K. Emurian; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1963
Music in Evangelism; Phil Kerr; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI; 1962