‘keep your eye on the sparrow’: meaning and origin

The phrase keep your eye on the sparrow means be totally focused on your objective.

 

ORIGIN OF THE PHRASE

 

This phrase originated in the image of God’s watchful eye upon the sparrow, with reference to the gospel of Matthew, 10:29-32:

(King James Version, 1611)
29 Are not two Sparrowes solde for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
30 But the very haires of your head are all numbred.
31 Feare yee not therefore, ye are of more value then many Sparrowes.
32 Whosoeuer therefore shall confesse mee before men, him will I confesse also before my Father which is in heauen.

A similar sentiment occurs in the gospel of Matthew, 6:26-30:

(King James Version, 1611)
26 Behold the foules of the aire: for they sow not, neither do they reape, nor gather into barnes, yet your heauenly father feedeth them. Are yee not much better then they?
27 Which of you by taking thought, can adde one cubite vnto his stature?
28 And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow: they toile not, neither doe they spinne.
29 And yet I say vnto you, that euen Solomon in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these.
30 Wherefore, if God so clothe the grasse of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the ouen: shall he not much more clothe you, O yee of little faith?

The Reverend Dr. David Gregg glossed both those biblical passages in Christ’s Mighty Contract, published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) of Monday 14th September 1903:

Christ […] unfolds before us the divine and loving care of the Heavenly Father over all His children. The least life is precious to Him. He makes the grass of the field talk divine providence and He makes the sparrows talk of God’s watchful love. He says that the Heavenly Father clothes the grass of the field. He says that the Heavenly Father notes the fall of every sparrow. […]
[…] God clothes the plebeian grass. God has His watchful eye upon the rustic sparrow. All this is a parable. The real and actual fact is this: God is in all human lives without exception and His overrule no power can gainsay. “If He clothes the grass will He not clothe you, O ye of little faith?” If He is occupied in loving thought about the single sparrow, “Are ye not of more value than many sparrows?” God cares for and God has a mission for the lowliest life.

In Does “Our Father” Notice?, published in The Patron and Gleaner (Lasker, North Carolina) of Thursday 19th September 1895, one M. H. Rice first quoted the gospel of Matthew, 10:29-32, then the chorus of a hymn:

“To do good, and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Yes, “Our Heavenly Father” notices it all! And, did not His beloved Son leave the glowing message for our encouragement,—
“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing; and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.
“But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
“Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.
“Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in Heaven.”—Matt. 10—29, 30, 31, 32.
“In my Father’s blessed keeping
I am happy, safe and free;
While His eye is on the sparrow—
I will not forgotten be!”

These are the words of the hymn, as published in The Daily Independent (Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin) of Sunday 13th October 1895:

There’s a word of tender beauty
In the sayings of our Lord,
How it stirs the heart to music,
Waking gratitude’s sweet chord;
For it tells me that “Our Father”
From His throne of royal might,
Bends to note a falling sparrow,
For ’tis precious in His sight.
Chorus:
Though I’m least of all His children,
So unworthy of His love,
Yet, for me there’s kind remembrance
In the Father-heart above;
He will ever save and keep me;
He will guide me on the way,
For my Savior gently whispers,
“Are ye not much more than they?”
Chorus:
Oh, the wounded hands of Jesus
All the springs of life control;
Is there any ill can harm me
While His blood is on my soul?
Let me, like the little sparrow,
Trust Him where I cannot see,
In the sunshine and the shadow,
Singing, He will care for me.
Chorus:
In my Father’s blessed keeping
I am happy, safe and free;
While His eye is on the sparrow
I will not forgotten be.

These are two earlier mentions of God’s watchful eye upon the sparrow:

1-: From Live By Faith, published in The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) of Sunday 27th January 1895:

Stand still in your weakness and expect the Lord’s help. Has anyone ever starved because he got a stone from God when he asked for bread? While his eye is on the sparrow he will not forget his child.

2-: From one of the unconnected paragraphs making up the column Figs and Thistles, published in the Evening Telegram (Adrian, Michigan) of Saturday 2nd March 1895:

Remember that while God’s eye is on the sparrow he will not forget his child.

The image of God’s watchful eye upon the sparrow was further popularised by the hymn His Eye Is on the Sparrow (1905), words by Civilla Durfee Martin (1866-1948), music by Charles Hutchinson Gabriel (1856-1932)—this is the chorus of this hymn, as published in The Scranton Republican (Scranton, Pennsylvania) of Friday 8th January 1909:

I sing because I’m happy,
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

 

EARLY OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE

 

I have found an isolated early occurrence of keep your eye on the sparrow in The Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan) of Tuesday 6th June 1893—however, here, keep your eye on the sparrow does not mean be totally focused on your objective, since the sparrow is similar to the canary in the phrase canary in the coal mine, denoting an early indicator of potential danger:

Attention is called to the fact that a few days before the outbreak of cholera in Hamburg last summer all the sparrows left the city, and did not return until the epidemic was stamped out. The same thing happened in Marseilles and Toulan [misprint for ‘Toulon’] in 1884, a day or two before the cholera visited those towns. Similar migrations have been noticed in different parts of Italy, Austria and Russia, always some days before the appearance of cholera. Keep your eye on the sparrow. When it leaves Kalamazoo it is time to go fishing.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from Stream and Field Notes, by John W. Fox, published in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) of Sunday 4th September 1932—the phrase was probably already well established, since the author puns on it and puts quotation marks around it:

They are reporting lots of doves killed in the State during the few days of last week since the season opened. Around Hickman, farmers say that they are plentiful, and they also claim that more quail than usual are being seen. Don’t forget while you are out dove hunting that the quail season doesn’t open until November 1.
Instead of “keeping your eye upon the sparrow,” keep it upon the dove and not upon the quail. If you don’t, the “man” is liable to get you.

The phrase then occurs in the conclusion of All Policemen Are Men; You’ll Be Belle of the Cell—Girls: No Luck With Men? Commit a Crime, by Florence King, published in The News and Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) of Sunday 21st November 1965:

The rules of manhunting require utter dedication, naturally. So to sum up, always keep your nose to the grindstone, your shoulder to the wheel, your ear to the ground, and your eye on the sparrow.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin used an extended form of the phrase in How to Make It in a Man’s World, published in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) of Sunday 26th April 1970:

Even at the middle- and top-management levels there is inevitable drudgework. There are some chores that you can’t assign to a secretary. What makes drudgework and routine tolerable is that as you progress in a job these things become less and less important; they occupy a shrinking portion of your time; they represent nothing more than a few bothersome moments of tedium in an otherwise challenging day. Try to view drudgework as a motivation for advancement and keep your eye on the sparrow of success.