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Did The Writer of “Heavenly Sunlight” Care about His Legacy?

I mentioned in my Tuesday email newsletter (you can subscribe below if you haven’t already) that I have a memory of my Mom singing the song “Heavenly Sunlight.” It seems like it was one of the ones she sang most often, on summer mornings with that golden Wisconsin light filtering through the birch tree. I now sing it to Anina in the morning, partially in memory of the Grandma she will never meet here.

(By the way. I did not realize until recently that birch trees are unique to the north. We hardly have any here in northern Indiana. Now I miss them. If you live in a place where these lovely cookies and cream trees thrive, say a prayer of thanks!)

After writing the Tuesday newsletter, I went to see if I could find the history of the song or any fascinating details about the life of its author.


Just a minister, Henry Zelley, who was born in 1859, died in 1942, and wrote a lot of songs.

Depressing, I thought. The man wrote 1500 poems. Fifteen hundred! And the internet hardly knows anything about him.

Did Henry Wish to Leave a Legacy?

My mind was drawn back to the song that started me looking for the author in the first place. I’ll copy it here, in case you also want to cast your eye over the words.

Walking in sunlight all of my journey,
over the mountains, through the deep vale;
Jesus has said, I’ll never forsake thee—
promise divine that never can fail.

Heavenly sunlight!  Heavenly sunlight!
Flooding my soul with glory divine;
Hallelujah!  I am rejoicing,
singing His praises, Jesus is mine!

Shadows around me, shadows above me
never conceal my Savior and Guide;
He is the light, in Him is no darkness,
ever I’m walking close to His side.  (Refrain)

In the bright sunlight, ever rejoicing,
pressing my way to mansions above;
singing His praises, gladly I’m walking,
walking in sunlight, sunlight of love.  (Refrain)

–Henry Zelley

In the first verse, the author reminds himself that Jesus has promised he would never forsake him. In the second verse, Henry talks about shadows. Shadows everywhere. Around me and above me. But they don’t conceal Jesus. “Ever I’m walking close to his side,” he says.

But perhaps the third verse provides the clue to how Henry would have responded to concerns for his legacy. In that stanza, he says he is “pressing my way to mansions above.”

Henry was thinking about his legacy

But not the one he was leaving behind on this earth. He had a higher goal, a loftier aspiration than the words in his obituary or the value of his estate.

Then, I was hit by the full irony of my thoughts.

Here it is, 2022, and I’m meditating on a poem written in 1899, 123 years ago. I’m inspired by the words of Henry Zelley, dead these 80 years. I’m now sharing those words with you, and perhaps there will be more sunshine in your day.

I’m reminded of Matthew 16:25: For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

If Henry had friends who bought mansions, they left those homes decades ago. In contrast, Henry wrote about his hope for the future, which still inspires us today. That is his legacy here.

But the important thing?

It wasn’t the important thing. Not to him. From what we can tell, his legacy on this earth was not his primary goal.

He had his eye on carving out a legacy above, and his song encourages us to do the same.

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2 thoughts on “Did The Writer of “Heavenly Sunlight” Care about His Legacy?”

  1. Thank you for this, Katrina! My sisters and I memorized this song as little girls so it has a lot of memories for me as well, but it’s only been recently that I’ve been really noticing the beauty of the words. Thanks for the inspiring thoughts on legacy.

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