Story Behind the Song: A hymn with a ‘royal’ tune
There are few hymns that have a tune written by a queen — maybe only one.
The popular hymn, “He’s Coming Soon,” written by Thoro Harris around 1918, used a familiar tune written by royalty — Queen Liliuokalani’s “Aloha Oe.”
Harris was a writer of gospel songs, song publisher, and a church organist. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1874, Harris’ father was a black doctor and his mother white, and some accounts claim that he passed as white in some situations, though it seems he was considered to be an African-American Pentecostal songwriter.
After attending college in Battle Creek, Mich., he produced his first hymnal in Boston in 1902 and then moved to Chicago, where he lived until age 60 when he moved to Eureka Springs, Ark.
In 1918, Harris wrote “He’s Coming Soon” based on the Bible’s teaching about the return of Christ — The dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
In Eureka Springs, Harris was well liked, active in the community, played the organ in churches and made a name for himself through his music. He was known locally as he walked around with a little canvas handbag containing copies of his songbooks, which were for sale.
In addition to spiritual endeavors, he owned a boarding house, Piedmont House, which is today a bed and breakfast inn in Eureka Springs — the oldest one there. Harris died in 1955 and is buried east of the town.
Almost a hundred years later, Harris’ words continue to encourage the saints in their walk of faith.
“And we, who living, yet remain, Caught up, shall meet our faithful Lord; This hope we cherish not in vain, But we comfort one another by this word.
He’s coming soon, He’s coming soon; With joy we welcome His returning; It may be morn, it may be night or noon — We know He’s coming soon.”
Liliuokalani was born Lydia Liliu Loloku Walania Wewehi Kamakaeh to High Chiefess Analea KeohokÄlole and High Chief Caesar Kaluaiku Kapaakea on Sept. 2, 1838. On Sept. 16, 1862, she married John Owen Dominis, an American-born statesman, who became Prince Consort and governor of Oahu and Maui after their marriage. They lived at Washington Place in Honolulu, built by her husbandÂ’s family, and she became sole owner when Dominis died.
Liliuokalani inherited the throne from her brother on Jan. 29, 1891, and was the last ruler of the Hawaiian Islands before the overthrow of the monarchy. She always believed it was her duty to preserve the islands for the native inhabitants, but she was removed by those who wanted a Republic of Hawaii. On July 4, 1894, the Republic of Hawaii was proclaimed and recognized by the United States government.
In 1895, Queen Liliuokalani was arrested after a failed attempt by Hawaiian royalists to have her returned to the throne. She was forced to abdicate and relinquish all power and future claims. At trial, she was convicted of knowing about the plot, sentenced to five years hard labor in prison by a military tribunal and fined $5,000. The sentence was commuted to imprisonment in an upstairs bedroom of Iolani Palace, the home of the royalty, where she composed songs and began work on her memoirs.
Washington Place was Liliuokalani’s home until her death in 1917 from a stroke. She was 79, and because of her position as a former head of state, she received a grand state funeral.
Liliuokalani’s will dictated that upon her death, all her possessions and properties were to be sold. The money was to go to help orphaned and indigent children through Queen Liliuokalani Children's Trust, still in existence today.
Liliuokalani was more than just royalty. She was a gifted author and songwriter.
Her book, “Hawaii's Story by Hawaii's Queen,” was published in 1898, and gives her account of her upbringing, her accession to the throne, the overthrow of her government by pro-American forces, her appeals to the United States of America to restore the Hawaiian monarchy, and her arrest and trial.
But it is for her musical abilities that she is remembered today.
It is said that she could play guitar, piano, organ, ukulele and zither, and she sang alto, performing Hawaiian and English sacred and secular music. She wrote almost 165 songs, of which the best known is the extremely popular Aloha Oe — the tune for “He’s Coming Soon.” Aloha Oe was published around 1890.
The origin of the song has many versions, but the most probable one is an incident from 1878. Liliuokalani took a horseback trip to the Boyd ranch on the windward side of Oahu where she saw Colonel Boyd embracing a woman and saying goodbye.
This inspired her to write “Aloha Oe,” originally a lovers’ goodbye but eventually a song of farewell. She completed the song at Washington Place. In a note, Liliuokalani wrote, "Composed at Maunawili 1878. Played by the Royal Hawaiian Band in San Francisco August 1883."
It has been sung at numerous occasions, from playing it as steamships depart Honolulu harbor to local funerals, and has been used as the tune for many gospel songs.
In her memoirs, Liliuokalani wrote, “To compose was as natural to me as to breathe; and this gift of nature, never having been suffered to fall into disuse, remains a source of the greatest consolation in composing, and transcribed a number of songs. Three found their way from my prison to the city of Chicago, where they were printed, among them ‘Aloha Oe’ or ‘Farewell to Thee’, which became a very popular song.”