Sunday, March 12, 2017

Strengthen With Thy Grace

On this day in 2017 we have a convergence of traditions. It's the Second Sunday in Lent on
the Christian calendar, and it's also the Feast of Purim on the Jewish calendar. Neither of
these days is tied to a specific date, so they rarely coincide.  And yet, we can bring them
together through one particular hymn.

Purim celebrates the story from the book of Esther, a woman born an Israelite but later
married to King Ahasuerus of Persia, who kept her origins a secret. At this time the Israelites 
were in exile in Persia. When Haman, an advisor to the king, devised a plot to kill all the
people of Israel, Esther defied convention by appearing before the king to plead for her
people (it was a capital offense to approach the king without permission). The eventual
deliverance of the Jews from the genocidal threat against them is marked by the joyful
celebration of Purim. Though Purim is a movable feast, it generally falls during the
Christian season of Lent.

Today's hymn dates from the sixth century, a text attributed to Pope Gregory the Great
(540-604), which begins:

Clarum decus jejunii
Monstratur orbi coelitus,
Quod Christus Auctor omnium
Cibis dicavit abstinens.

This was translated by Maurice Frederick Bell for the English Hymnal (1906). As was typical,
the text's illustrative exemplars from the Bible were all men, a conceit to which we need no
longer subscribe. In the revision below, the original third stanza (which you can see in the
full text here), referencing Daniel and John, was replaced by one about Esther, and
included in our original hymnal project for the Metropolitan Community Church.  
The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made,
For us has fasted and has prayed.
Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.
So also Esther, at her hour,
For such a time was filled with pow'r
To go to the king, prepared to give
Her life, to let her people live.
Then grant us, Christ, like them to be
Full oft in fast and prayer with thee;
Our spirits strengthen with thy grace,
And give us joy to see thy face.
Creator, Christ, and Spirit blest,
To thee be every prayer addressed,
Whom grace and pow'r doth freely share,
With all who turn to thee in prayer.

Gregory the Great, Latin, 6th cent.;
tr. Maurice F. Bell, 1906; alt.
st. 3 Steve Carson, 1989
Joseph Klug, 1543;
harm. J. S. Bach, 18th cent.
stanza3 Copyright © 1989 Steve Carson

Oddly enough, March 12 was also the original feast day of Gregory the Great (the date
of his death), but in 1969 the Roman Catholic Church moved it to September 3 (the
date of his elevation to Pope). So we actually have a triple convergence today.

Though I have sung this hymn many times (most recently at a 2015 hymn festival
celebrating the women of the Bible), I was not aware of the Lent/Purim relationship
until a few years ago, but I have no doubt that my friend Steve Carson knew when he
chose Esther to be the woman included in this hymn.

Eight Years Ago: Paul Gerhardt

Seven Years Ago: Robert Lowry

Six Years Ago: Paul Gerhardt

Another Female Stanza Substitution: Jesus calls us o'er the tumult

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday

There is no sorrow, Christ, too light
To bring in prayer to thee;
There is no anxious care too slight
To wake thy sympathy.

Thou, who hast trod the thorny road,
Wilt share each small distress;
Thy love, which bore the greater load,
Will not refuse the less.

There is no secret sigh we breathe,
But meets thine ear divine;
And every cross grows light beneath
The shadow, Christ, of thine.

Jane Fox Crewdson, 1860; alt.
Edwin Moss, 19th cent.

Nine (Liturgical) Years Ago: Lord, who throughout these forty days

Eight (Liturgical) Years Ago: Awhile in spirit, Christ, to thee (now on Facebook)
Eight (Calendar) Years Ago: Thirsting for a living spring
Six (Liturgical) Years Ago: O Christ, whose tender mercy hears

Six (Calendar) Years Ago: Saint David
Five (Liturgical) Years Ago: All those who seek a comfort sure

Two (Calendar) Years Ago: Sing of Jesus, sing forever

One (Liturgical) Year Ago: Gracious God, my heart renew

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell, born today in 1819, was one of the most prominent American intellectuals of the nineteenth century, even though by his own admission he had not applied himself particularly well to his studies at Harvard University. He graduated without any sort of distinction in 1838, but would return in 1855, once his writing career was established, as a professor of modern languages. In the interim, he had practiced unsuccessfully as a lawyer until turning his efforts to writing. His first book of poems appeared in 1841, but he also wrote political pamphlets, satirical essays, and more significantly, articles for abolitionist newspapers and magazines. Successive collections of his poetry continued to appear for the rest of his life.

In 1857 he became the first editor of the Atlantic Monthly (still running today), a post he held until 1863, after which he spent the next ten years editing the North American Review, which was the first literary magazine in the US, founded in 1815. Also known for his political views, he would later serve as minister to Spain (1877-1880) and ambassador to Great Britain (1880-1885). 

The hymn texts now attributed to Lowell were mostly not intended as congregational song, but were excerpted and adapted by various hymnal editors over time.  Lowell first appears in Julian's Dictionary of Hymnology in the 1907 edition (entry seen at the first link above), where Julian says that Lowell wrote "no hymns." Today's hymn was first adapted for singing by W. Garrett Horder in his Hymns, Supplemental to Existing Collections (1896), and apparently had not become sufficiently popular to gain Julian's notice by 1907.  However, it would later appear in many twentieth-century collections (163 documented at, before falling somewhat out of favor in the last thirty years or so.

In the 1840s, at the beginning of Lowell's career as a poet, the United States was headed toward armed conflict with Mexico, which he strongly opposed, partly for the reason that it might spread slavery into the newly annexed territory of Texas. In December 1845 he wrote a long poem titled The Present Crisis, believing that the nation stood at a moral crossroads. It was published in the Boston Courier on December 11. More than fifty years later, Horder (followed by many subsequent editors) believed that this poem had something important to say to people of faith beyond Lowell's particular concerns and took several lines from the long poem, rearranging some of them and making the lines more metrical, resulting in the hymn Once to every man and nation.

By the late twentieth century, some editors saw problems with the text. "Man" was no longer considered useful to refer to the whole of humankind (in spite of self-appointed grammar police). Also, some believed that the important choices we face do not happen only once; that we have to make the choice between right and wrong many times in our lives.  After being left out of a number of important denominational hymnals, some editors have made further adaptations so that it can be used again. The Welsh tune TON-Y-BOTEL has been the predominant tune matched with this text for most of its life.

To us all, to every nation,
Come those moments to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’Twixt that wrongness and that right.

Then to side with truth is noble,
When we share its wretched crust,
Ere its cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave one chooses
While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus' bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet 'tis truth alone is strong;
Though its portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
God is standing in the shadow,
Keeping watch above God's own.

James Russell Lowell, 1845; adapt.
Thomas J. Williams, 1890

New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth. 
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Words to live by.
Eight Years Ago: Sarah Flower Adams

Monday, February 20, 2017

David McKinley Williams

Today is the 130th anniversary of the birth of composer and church musician David McK. Williams (1887-1978), who was born in Wales, but came to Colorado in this country as a child with his family. Some of his earliest musical training was as a boy chorister at the Cathedral of St. John in the Wilderness in Denver, and by age 13 he was the organist at St. Peter's Church in that city.

In 1908 he moved to New York City, where he was organist and music director at Grace Church Chapel and the Church of the Holy Communion (where William Muhlenberg had been rector) with a break to study in Paris (1911-1914) and another to serve in World War I with the Royal Canadian Artillery (his photograph here is from those years).

Not long after his return from Europe in 1920 he became the director of music at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, where he would remain for the next twenty-six years and raise the level of music at that church to become one of the best-regarded in that city. His organ playing, both accompanying the choir and congregation, and in recital, was beloved by his peers, and he was also admired for the force of his personality. He also wrote several hymn tunes (most of them unison settings rather than in traditional four-part harmony - and also still under copyright), anthems and various service music items for Episcopal worship. He served on the committee that produced the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (which includes six of his tunes).

However, Williams was also openly gay (whatever that would have meant in that time), and was suddenly dismissed from his position in 1946. This would certainly have been known for some time by leadership at St. Bartholomew's, and it's possible that action was not taken earlier because Williams was a close friend and colleague of composer Amy Beach, a parishioner and probably a significant donor to the church (who died in 1944). The congregation was told that  Williams had developed hearing problems and would be taking a leave of absence and leaving the city to seek treatment.

Following his forced retirement he remained in New York, in spite of the claims by church leadership, headed the organ department at the Juilliard School of Music and was a faculty member at the School of Sacred Music at Union Seminary. He remained active in church music circles and the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists, where younger people in later years couldn't recall any significant hearing issues.

This 2015 recording of Williams' anthem In the year that King Uzziah died is by the choir of Trinity Lutheran Church in Des Plaines, Illinois, directed by Brad Whaley.

Anthem text is from Isaiah 6:1-8.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Make Us All the Burden Share

Continuing our series of hymns of social justice, we have today the reintroduction of a text which predates slightly the first "golden age" of such hymns which happened in the early twentieth century, and may or may not have been known to the authors who produced those early hymns. 

This is a prayer for divine guidance that recognizes that we on earth can do the will of God through Christ, who modeled during his life how we should support and help the people around us.  Originally published with six stanzas in Good Will, a Christian journal, its first appearance in a hymnal was in the Christian Social Union Hymn Book (1895), a collection for the social justice organization of the same name.

Reintroducing a classic text such as this one requires a strong, familiar tune that people sing well, in this case the Welsh tune TON-Y-BOTEL (sometimes called EBENEZER).

Jesus Christ, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,

Word made flesh, whose birth incarnate
Hallows all our human race,
Thou, our head who, throned in glory,
For thine own dost ever plead,
Fill us with thy love and pity;
Heal our wrongs, and help our need.

Bind us all as one together
In thy church’s sacred fold,
Weak and healthy, poor and wealthy,
Sad and joyful, young and old.
Is there want, or pain, or sorrow?
Make us all the burden share.
Are there spirits crushed and broken?
Teach us how to soothe their care.

Jesus, thou hast lived for others,
So may we for others live;
Freely have thy gifts been granted,
Freely may we learn to give.
Thine the gold and thine the silver,
Thine the wealth of land and sea,
We but stewards of thy bounty,
Held in solemn trust for thee.

Come, O Christ, and reign among us,
Fount of love and strength and peace,
Hush the storm of strife and passion,
Bid its cruel discords cease:
Thou who hopest, thou who willest,
That thy people should be one,
Grant, O grant our prayer’s fruition:
Here on earth thy will be done.

Somerset Lowry, 1893; alt.
Thomas J. Williams, 1890
Somerset Corry Lowry (1855-1932) was born in the Irish town of Dungannon and educated at Cambridge University. Son of a prominent lawyer, he planned to follow in that profession, but changed his mind and was ordained in the Church of England in 1879 and served several parishes, apparently writing about sixty hymn texts along the way (only a handful are documented online).
TON-Y-BOTEL, coincidentally, will reappear here later this week.
Originally presented here on September 14, 2008.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Hymns in the News

This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of hymnwriter William Williams (1717-1791), though his exact birthdate was unrecorded. The occasion is being celebrated tomorrow in his home country with a broadcast service filmed at the church where he was buried, described in this article in the South Wales Guardian.

Williams published two books of his hymn texts, Halleluiah (1744) and Y Môr o Wydr (1766) which became very popular in Wales. He also released two volumes containing 121 of his texts translated into English: Hosannah to the Son of David (1759) and Gloria in Excelsis (1771) -- later combined into one volume in 1859.

Of course, Williams' best-known hymn today is Guide me, O thou great Redeemer (originally Jehovah), and I believe I can safely say that it is not "better known today as the rugby anthem Bread of Heaven" in this country, at least. Though it was written and translated in the eighteenth century, the tune nearly everyone sings today, CWM RHONDDA was not written until 1905. As you can see from the timeline chart at (scroll down), that tune would lead to even wider use of the text in twentieth-century hymnals.

So, for more than 150 years, it was sung to other tunes, including GUIDE ME by George William Warren, ZION by Thomas Hastings (apparently one of the more-utilized nineteenth-century tunes for the text), PILGRIM by Albert Lister Peace (which certainly sounds like it was written by the composer of ST. MARGARET), and PILGRIMAGE by George Job Elvey (for a little Victoriana), among others. I'm not sure that any of them would have become a rugby anthem.

Nevertheless, let's remember the important work of William Williams, the "Watts of Wales" whose hymns spread from his own country around the world, including one which remains the favorite of many.

Eight Years Ago: Washington Gladden

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Not Despair, But Wise Intent

Unfortunately, the challenges of our present day are not unique.  People of faith often have had to stand up for what they believe, in both large ways and small.

Why discouraged? Why despair,
Yielding to the present woe?
We are not what once we were;
Let us build on that we know.

Even now the future life
Shape we with our conscious hands;
And amidst the woe and strife,
Full our dream incarnate stands.

Lightest thought and humblest deed,
Aspiration's faintest breath,
These are but the unseen seed,
Springing up in spite of death.

Not despair, but wise intent,
Takes the hardship from our task;
High resolve and onward bent --
These the pressing moment ask.

Malcolm Quin, 19th cent; alt.
Tune: PATMOS (
William Henry Havergal, 1869

Malcolm Quin (1854-1927? - no useful link available) was at one time the minister of a Church of Humanity congregation in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Church of Humanity was based on the philosophy of Positivism, developed by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century. It was described by one critic as "Catholicism minus Christianity," and Quin was definitely interested in this aspect, developing liturgies for his church, designing vestments, and writing hymns. He wrote about Catholicism and corresponded with George Tyrell, a Jesuit priest who was excommunicated for his modernist ideas.

Eight Years Ago: Joy is like the rain

Seven Years Ago: Roger Williams

Three Years Ago: Thomas Turton

Monday, January 30, 2017

Ann Taylor Gilbert

Poet and literary critic Ann Taylor Gilbert (1782-1866) was born today in the London neighborhood of Islington. Her mother (also named Ann) had also written poetry and "satiric effusions" as well as seven books of moral and religious advice. Her father, Isaac Taylor, was a metal engraver who later became a Nonconformist minster and moved the family to various towns where he pastored successive congregations.

In her posthumously-published memoir, Ann recalled beginning to write "verses in metre, imitated from Dr. Watts, at that time the only poet on my shelves," at the age of seven or eight. She believed this effort arose from anxiety about her mother's poor health. One early stanza remained in her memory:

Dark and dismal was the weather,
Winter into horror grew;
Rain and snow came down together,
Everything was lost to view.

Ann and her younger sister Jane (best known as the author of Twinkle, twinkle, little star) collaborated on four collections of verse for children:

Original Poems for Infant Minds Volume 1 (1804)
Original Poems for Infant Minds Volume 2 (1805)
Rhymes for the Nursery (1806)
Hymns for Infant Minds (1808)

The sisters may have been inspired by Divine and Moral Songs for Children (1715) by Isaac Watts, perhaps the very book that Ann knew as a child. Their books were extremely popular in the nineteenth century, going through many different editions. An article on children's literature in the Encyclopedia Britannica describes their work (and its popularity) thus: "The Taylor sisters, though adequately moral, struck a new note of sweetness, of humour, at any rate of nonpriggishness." Just which sister wrote each of the poems was not always indicated, and over the years many of Ann's poems were attributed to Jane, though subsequent scholars have sorted most of them out.  One of Ann's poems, The Maniac's Song (1810) is thought by some to be the inspiration for La belle dame sans merci by John Keats.

In 1813, Ann married the Reverend Joseph Gilbert, who had proposed to her before they ever met, because he was familiar with her work, particularly her literary criticism published in The Eclectic Review magazine. After marriage, she continued her writing of verse and prose, often on subjects such as abolition and prison reform (though she was staunchly opposed to women's suffrage). At least one more book of children's verse (compiled by Ann alone) appeared, Hymns for Infant Schools (1827).

Today's hymn text comes from the earlier Hymns for Infant Minds, written on the well-known story of story of Jesus' visit to the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), from where the phrases "one thing needful" and "better part" are taken directly. Like various other "children's hymns" of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it still has something to say to the adults of the twenty-first century (with just a bit of editorial clean-up).

As Mary sat at Jesus' feet
To learn her Maker's will,
We in the Savior's presence meet
To learn his precepts still.

Oh, for that quick, attentive mind
Which happy Mary showed!
May we the one thing needful find
That was on her bestowed.

'Tis here we learn the glorious name
Of God, who reigns above.
How the descending Spirit came
How great the Savior's love.

God, while we thank you for the grace
That sends this happy news,
We still would sit in Mary's place,
Her better part to choose.

Ann Gilbert, 1806; alt.
Tune: SONG 67 (C.M.)
Orlando Gibbons, 1623;
arr. Henry T. Smart, 19th cent.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

John Mason Neale (and Year Ten)

On the birthday of the great hymnologist John Mason Neale (our spiritual godparent here) we also celebrate the ninth birthday of this site and begin our tenth (!!) year. His biography has been covered extensively in earlier posts (see links below).

Neale was largely responsible for reviving interest in the ancient hymns of the Church by translating texts from Latin and Greek (and other languages) that were unknown outside the Roman Catholic Church.  The Dictionary of Hymnology (1892) by John Julian says of Neale's skill at translation:

(...) Dr. Neale's exquisite ear for melody prevented him from spoiling the rhythm by too servile an imitation of the original; while the spiritedness which is a marked feature of all his poetry preserved that spring and dash which is so often wanting in a translation.

Today's hymn was formerly attributed to Saint Ambrose of Milan (c.340-397) but doubt about his authorship has persisted for more than a century now. Scholars agree that the theme and style are Ambrosian, but probably not the text itself. It's an office hymn, originally intended to be sung in religious communities on Friday mornings during ordinary time, but is certainly appropriate for use as a general morning hymn. Neale's translation (one of several in English) appeared in the enlarged edition of his The Hymnal Noted (1854).

Eternal Glory of the sky,
Blest Hope of all humanity,
Our Maker's sole-begotten One,
Yet born a humble virgin’s son!

The day-star’s rays are glittering clear,
And tell that day itself is near:
The shadows of the night depart;
Thou, holy Light, inflame the heart!

Uplift us with thine arm of might,
And let our hearts rise pure and bright,
And, ardent in God’s praises, pay
The gratitude we owe each day.

The faith that first must be possessed,
Root deep within our inmost breast;
And joyous hope in second place,
Then charity, thy greatest grace.

All laud to our Creator be,
All praise, eternal Christ, to thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the holy Paraclete.

Latin, 5th cent.(?)
tr. John Mason Neale, 1854; alt.
William Boyce, 1769

Eight Years Ago: John Mason Neale

Seven Years Ago: John Mason Neale

Six Years Ago: John Mason Neale

Four Years Ago: John Mason Neale

One Year Ago: John Mason Neale

Monday, January 23, 2017

Phillips Brooks

The Reverend Phillips Brooks, priest and briefly Bishop of Massachusetts, is remembered today in the Episcopal liturgical calendar on the day of his death in 1894. He was born in Boston on December 13, 1835, where he lived most of his life.  After graduating from Harvard in 1855 he maintained a lifelong connection to the university, often preaching at Appleton Chapel and acting as an overseer (though he turned down the invitation to serve as a professor of Christian ethics). He would take Harvard students to Europe when he travelled there, and students also served as pallbearers at his funeral.

In 1869 Brooks became the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston, and over the next several years a grand new church building was raised, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson and completed in 1877. It has been named as one of the Ten Buildings that Changed America in a PBS documentary. The novelist and historian Henry Adams, a second cousin of Brooks, wrote the novel Esther, about a young atheist who falls in love with Stephen Hazard, a clergyman involved in building a grand church. Hazard is assumed to be based on Brooks, and he and Esther become involved in an unfortunate relationship which ends when she refuses to marry him because marriage to an atheist would ruin his career. (Brooks himself never married either, though apparently there was no such affecting incident in his life).

Today, Brooks is most remembered as the author of O little town of Bethlehem, though in his own time it was his sermons which made him famous, published widely in periodicals and collected editions. His preaching reportedly brought thousands of people of all denominations to Trinity Church, and he is credited for inspiring the conversion of many, among them Helen Keller and the hymnwriter Eliza Scudder.

Several of Brooks' other hymns were written for special liturgical occasions, collected in Christmas Songs and Easter Carols (1910), though other verse by him has been included in hymnals over the years. Today's text was reportedly written on his last Sunday as rector of Trinity Church in 1891 before taking his seat as Bishop of Massachusetts. 

As once I listened came a word,
I knew not whence, I could not see;
But when my waiting spirit heard,
I cried, God, here am I, send me!

I turned, I went; along the way
That word was food and air and light;
I feasted on it all the day,
And rested on it all the night.

I wondered: but when soon I came
To where the word complete must be,
I called the wonder by its name:
for lo! the word I sought was thee.

Phillips Brooks, 1891; alt.
Traditional Swiss melody;
arr. The English Hymnal, 1906

The statue of Phillips Brooks pictured above (you can click to see it larger), by sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens, stands outside Trinity Church in Boston's Copley Square. A service of dedication for the memorial was held in February 1910, at which this hymn was sung. The statue is glowingly described in contemporaneous written accounts, many calling it a "characteristic" pose, "majestic," "heroic," and other such adjectives. Anecdotal accounts, however, suggest that not everyone agreed, and that many people present could not recall Brooks ever raising his hand like that while preaching, while others did not understand that the cowled figure behind him was supposed to be Jesus, and found it rather ominous and threatening.

Eight Years Ago: Phillips Brooks

Another Brooks Hymn: God will send the angels