Monday, August 31, 2015

Hymns in the News

It's been a while since I've done one of these posts, and this news is a few weeks late, but I recently came across an article about an episode of the popular British television programme Songs of Praise, which, as you may know, has presented hymn singing every week since 1961 on the BBC, from a wide variety of locations.

Anyway, this piece from August 15 seems especially relevant here in the US, given this summer's ongoing coverage of various political opinions on immigration.  Unfortunately, the Songs of Praise episode can only be viewed for the next few weeks if you are in the UK (but that does include some of my readers there, who may have missed it).

Without getting into a long discourse on my own thoughts regarding the immigration question, it seems better to tell you about some relevant hymns. Modern hymnwriters have made the useful connection between the story of Mary and Joseph's flight into Egypt, briefly told in Matthew 2:13-15, and our understanding of what it might mean to be a "refugee."  I commend to you the following texts:

When Jesus was a refugee by Mary Nelson Keithahn (2002)

Gentle Joseph heard a warning by Carl P. Daw Jr. (1990)

Jesus entered Egypt by Adam M. L. Tice (2007)

The last two are particular favorites of mine.  We could certainly do worse than to sing these hymns and others like them as the immigration debate swirls around us in the coming months.

P.S. - This painting by Orazio Gentileschi, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1628) depicts the Holy Family as simple weary travelers, not attended by angels as in several other depictions.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., both physician and poet, was born today in 1809.  He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1835 after a brief consideration of law school, and also having already published one of his most famous poems, Old Ironsides, in 1830.  He went into private practice, but during the first year of that practice his success as a poet was even greater. This did not enhance his reputation as a serious medical professional to potential patients, and eventually he moved into teaching and lecturing in medicine, first at Dartmouth and later at Harvard Medical School, where he taught until 1882.

Friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson encouraged a parallel career as a poet and he published his first of several collections of poetry in 1836.  Twenty years later he was asked by his friend, poet James Russell Lowell, to assist him in editing a new magazine, the Atlantic Monthly (still published today) and Holmes's frequent writings in the magazine, both in poetry and prose, contributed to the success of the new venture.

His father, Abiel Holmes, was a Congregationalist minister, but Holmes became a Unitarian, perhaps due to the influence of his Harvard education.  His views seem to have been even more liberal than many Unitarians, and John Quincy Adams supposedly once accused him of preaching "wild atheism."  Several of Holmes's poems have been used or adapted as hymns, such as today's text, originally written for the fortieth reunion of his Harvard class of 1829.

O gracious Power, whose mercy lends
The light of home, the smile of friends,
Our families in your arms enfold
As in the peaceful days of old.

Will you not hear us while we raise,
In sweet accord of solemn praise,
The voices that have mingled long
In joyous flow of mirth and song?

For all the blessings life has brought,
For all its sorrowing hours have taught,
For all we mourn, for all we keep,
The hands we clasp, the loved that sleep.

Thank you, Creator; let your grace
Our widening circle still embrace,
Your mercy shed its heavenly store,
Your peace be with us evermore.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1869; alt.
Robert Schumann, 1839; adapt.

I made one significant alteration to this text, attempting to adapt it for modern use.  In the final stanza, Holmes wrote "our narrowing circle still embrace," which was appropriate for the original occasion, the reunion of an aging community of colleagues then approaching the twilight of their lives.  But after reading some of his other works, I think he would approve of the reversal, and agree that a worshipping community should be open to wider experiences and influences, as he was.

The line that may be remembered from one of his famous poems, The Chambered Nautilus (1858), opens the final stanza: Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul. The whole poem uses the spiral shape of the chambered nautilus as a metaphor for the constantly-expanding lives we live, if we are open to the experience. The final line of the poem is Leaving thine outgrown shell by life's unresting sea! 

P.S. - The Chambered Nautilus was set to music in 1908 by Amy Beach for women's voices and can be heard in a partial performance on YouTube (though the chorus's diction is not to be commended).

Seven Years Ago: Oliver Wendell Holmes

Three Years Ago: Oliver Wendell Holmes

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Saint Mary the Virgin

Today's feast day is celebrated in some places as a day to honor Mary in general, and in other places it is a more specific celebration of the Assumption, the day when Mary was taken up bodily (or 'assumed') into heaven.  That story does not appear in the New Testament, but grew out of accounts dating from the fourth century.

Today's anonymous hymn text comes from a Roman Catholic collection titled English and Latin Hymns (1884).  These two stanzas, part of a longer hymn, depict the fourth and fifth of the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary, Mary's Assumption and Coronation in Heaven.

Behold her open grave, adorned
With blossoms fair and bright,
And friends who mourned for Mary stand
Enraptured with the sight.
They find her earthly body gone, 
Sweet roses in its place,
Assumed on high she leaves this world
And God will grant her grace.

To welcome Mary, queen of saints,
See countless angels throng,
Their glad 'Hail Mary!' rends the skies,
An anthem loud and long.
See, Jesus crowns his mother dear
With rays of dazzling light,
As saints and angels kneel and sing
That maiden Mother's might.

Anonymous, 19th cent.; alt.
C.H.H. Parry, 1904

P.S. The art above is detail from Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Annibale Carracci, circa 1600.

Seven Years Ago: Ye who claim the faith of Jesus

Six Years Ago: Hail, holy Queen!

Five Years Ago: Sing, sing, ye angel bands

Four Years Ago: Virgin born, we bow before thee

Three Years Ago: Let today above all other

Two Years Ago:  Hail, Queen of heav'n, the ocean star

Friday, July 24, 2015

John Newton

John Newton, hymnwriter, Anglican priest, former slave-trader and later activist against slavery in England, was born today in London in 1725. Later in life he would mark May 10 as the anniversary of his conversion to Christianity in 1748.  He continued in the slave trade for a few years after that day, but tried to ensure that the Africans under his care were treated "humanely."

After giving up his seafaring life, he became surveyor of tides in the port of Liverpool, where he met George Whitefield, a deacon in the Church of England but also an early follower of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Newton was later introduced to Wesley, and it seems likely that his acquaintance with these men influenced not only his desire to be ordained in the Church of England (which finally happened in June 1764 after several years of applying), but also his later hymnwriting career. Hymns were not widely used in the Church of England in Newton's time (and were expressly forbidden by many bishops), but when Newton was established as the rector at the village of Olney he wrote many of his hymns to be sung at his weekly prayer service as a response to his sermon, believing that they were an effective way to reinforce his message (as John and Charles Wesley earlier believed of their Methodist followers).

Today's text is from Newton's Olney Hymns (1779) where it was titled The Lodestone.  It caught my attention because it creatively links our relationship with Christ to the natural phenomenon of magnetism, which I don't recall encountering before.

As needles point towards the pole,
When touched by the magnetic stone;
So faith in Jesus gives the soul
A tendency before unknown.

Till then, by earthly passions led,
In search of fancied good we range;
The paths of disappointment tread,
To nothing fixed, but love of change.

The Holy Spirit then imparts
The knowledge of the Savior’s love;
Our wand’ring, weary, restless hearts,
Are fixed at once, no more to move.

By Love’s sure light we soon perceive
Our noblest bliss, and proper end;
And gladly every idol leave,
To love and serve our Lord and Friend.

John Newton, 1779; alt.
Benjamin Cooke (?), 1794

As of last month, John Newton has the additional distinction of being the first hymnwriter whose most famous hymn has been sung on national television by a President of the United States.  I'm sure most, if not all of you saw President Obama's rendition of Amazing grace at the memorial service on June 26 for the nine people murdered at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Seven Years Ago: John Newton

Six Years Ago: John Newton

Five Years Ago: John Newton

Four Years Ago: John Newton

Three Years Ago: John Newton

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Our Sure Defense Forever Be

I recently acquired a new (to me) hymnal, pictured here. Hymnal: A Worship Book (1992) was a joint project of the Church of the Brethren, the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Church in North America (it appears that those last two denominations merged in 2002 but I could be wrong).  Anyway, it's an interesting book to me because, in addition to many new hymns of the 1980s and 90s it also has many hymns from earlier days that had not survived in the hymnals of other denominations but which were apparently still being sung.

The hymnal opens with a section of hymns called "Gathering," which caught my eye for some reason, though I'm sure it's not the only hymnal with such a section.  These are suggested for use as the opening hymn in worship, which I've always just thought of as "opening hymns," but "Gathering" sounds much nicer.  Also, it seems like a good theme for summer Sundays here, so even though I have already written about many such hymns before, we'll see some more this year.

Working together, Fanny Crosby and composer William Howard Doane probably collaborated on dozens of songs, including Pass me not, O gentle Savior, Jesus, keep me near the cross, and To God be the glory, but I had never encountered this one, which I like very much.

God of our strength, enthroned above,
The source of life, the fount of love;
O let devotion’s sacred flame
Our souls awake to praise thy name.

God of our strength, we sing to thee,
Our sure defense forever be.

To thee we lift our joyful eyes,
To thee on wings of faith we rise;
Come thou, and let thy courts on earth
Ring out thy praise in holy mirth.

God of our strength, from day to day
Direct our thoughts and guide our way;
O may our hearts united be
In sweet communion here with thee.

God of our strength, on thee we call;
God of our hope, our light, our all,
Thy name we praise, thy love adore,
Our rock, our shield, forevermore.

Fanny Crosby, 1882; alt.
VISION (L.M. with refrain)
William H. Doane, 1883

This hymn was first published in the Baptist Hymnal (1883), for which Doane was the musical editor.  Although the Cyber Hymnal suggests that Doane's tune was written earlier, this appears to have been a new text for Crosby.  At this point she was probably the most famous writer of gospel songs and hymns in her day, having been successful for about fifteen years. Though she lived until 1915, her most popular songs (mostly the ones we still know today) were written in those early years.  By 1883, the songs she was writing did not gain the same traction as the earlier ones and are generally less known, though I have written about several of these as well.   


Friday, July 17, 2015

Isaac Watts

Influential hymnwriter Isaac Watts was born today in 1674. His father was a Nonconformist, or Dissenter, who was twice jailed for not joining the state Church of England, and the son followed in the father's beliefs. Dissatisfied with the psalm paraphrases which were sung in English churches of his day, young Isaac resolved to write better things to sing, and thus became one of the earliest and most prolific writers in English who wrote hymns that were not scriptural paraphrases. His earliest hymns were published in 1707 and 1709. 

In 1719 he published The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, his own psalm paraphrases which brought Jesus into many of the texts. These were not the stricter, complete paraphrases of earlier days; Watts left some of the psalms out, as well as ignoring some long sections of those he did include. To explain these so-called discrepancies, he wrote that 

Where the Psalmist describes religion by the fear of God, I have often joined faith and love to it. Where he speaks of the pardon of sin through the mercies of God, I rather choose to mention the sacrifice of Christ, the Lamb of God. Where He promises abundance of wealth, honor, and long life, I have changed some of these typical blessings for grace, glory and life eternal, which are brought to light by the gospel, and promised in the New Testament.

His hymns and psalm paraphrases were derided by critics as "flights of fancy," or even "Watts's whims," and some churches split over the singing of hymns rather than psalms, but obviously hymns eventually gained greater favor with the general public. The noted essayist Samuel Johnson, a contemporary of Watts, wrote that "He was the first who taught the Dissenters to write and speak like other men, by showing them that elegance might consist with piety." 

In all he wrote nearly eight hundred texts (listed here). Today's hymn of praise is not derived from the Psalms, but some sources suggest that it comes partly from the book of Job, proclaiming the infinite greatness of God.

How wondrous great, how glorious bright
Must our Creator be,
Who dwells amidst the dazzling light
Of vast eternity.

Our soaring spirits upwards rise
to reach the glorious throne.
There would we see the blessed Three
In the Almighty One.

Our reason stretches all its wings,
And climbs above the skies;
But still how far below God's feet
Our mortal knowledge lies!

While all the heavenly powers conspire
Eternal praise to bring,
Let faith in humbler notes adore,
The wondrous Mystery sing.

Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.
Maurice Greene, 18th cent.

Earlier printings of this hymn do not include this final stanza, so I am not sure if it is from another hymn entirely, and perhaps is not even by Watts, but this is the form which more recent hymnals have used.

Isaac Watts never married (his one proposal was rejected) and his health was poor for many years.  He pastored a church in London though many of his duties had to be left to an assistant.  In old age, he once wrote "The business of a Christian is to bear the will of God, as well as to do it. If I were in health, I ought to be doing it; and now it is my duty to bear it." He died on November 25, 1748 and was was buried in Bunhill Fields.

Seven Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Six Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Five Years Ago: Isaac Watts

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Feast of Corpus Christi

The Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated on this day in some churches, transferred from its true position on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. It is a day set aside to pay tribute to the Real Presence of Christ, the Body and Blood in the Communion meal.

Saint Juliana of Liege (1193-1258) was the first champion of such a feast day; she wanted a commemoration for the Eucharist that would fall outside the season of Lent and outside Holy Week. She convinced her local bishop, Robert de Thorete, of the usefulness of such an occasion and he declared the first celebration of the feast in 1246.  From there it eventually spread to the whole Catholic Church, decreed by Pope Urban in 1264. Other churches, particularly some Anglo-Catholic churches in the Anglican Communion also mark the day. Historically, it was often a very elaborate celebration, with an outdoor procession conveying the elements of the Eucharist.

The well-known Latin text Ave verum corpus dates from the fourteenth century and is attributed to Pope Innocent IV, written for this feast day. It has been set to music by many composers, perhaps most notably by Mozart and William Byrd.

This is a setting I particularly like, by Camille Saint-Saens, sung by the Handel Choir of Baltimore, Maryland.

P.S. - The art above is by the fifteenth-century Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, depicting a Corpus Christi procession in Venice's St. Mark's Square.

Seven Years Ago: Here, O my God, I see thee face to face

Three Years Ago: Sweet Sacrament divine 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday

Sound aloud our highest praises,
Tell abroad God's wondrous Name;
Heaven the ceaseless anthem raises,
Let the earth its God proclaim:
God, the hope of every nation,
God, the source of consolation,
Holy, blessèd Trinity!

This the Name from ancient ages
Hidden in its dazzling light;
This the Name that saints and sages,
Prayed and strove to know aright,
Through God's wondrous Incarnation,
Now revealed the world's salvation,
Ever blessèd Trinity!

Still the Name o’er earth and ocean
Shall be carried, God is Love,
Whispered by the heart’s devotion,
Echoed by the choirs above,
Hallowed through all worlds forever,
Lord of life the only giver,
Blessèd, glorious Trinity!

Henry A. Martin, 1870; alt.
Tune: FIDES (
Clement Cottevill Scholefield, 1874

Seven Years Ago: Lead us, great Creator, lead us

Six Years Ago: Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty!

Five Years Ago: I bind unto myself today

Four Years Ago: O Trinity of blessèd light

Two Years Ago: Mighty Creator, merciful and tender

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Feast of Pentecost

Come, O come, thou quick'ning Spirit,
God from all eternity!
May thy power never fail us;
Dwell within us constantly.
Then shall truth and life and light
Banish all the gloom of night.

Grant our hearts in fullest measure
Wisdom, counsel, purity,
That we ever may be seeking
Fuller faith as found in thee.
Let thy knowledge spread and grow,
Working error's overthrow.

If our souls can find no comfort
And despondency grows strong
That our hearts cry out in anguish:
"O my God, how long, how long?"
Comfort then each aching breast,
Grant us courage, patience, rest.

Holy Spirit, strong and mighty,
Thou who makest all things new,
Make thy work within us perfect,
All constraining pow'rs subdue.
Grant us victory in the strife
And with gladness crown our life.

Heinrich Held, c.1664; tr. Charles W. Schaeffer, 1866; alt.
Robert Prescott Stewart, 1868

Seven Years Ago: Joy, because the circling year

Six Years Ago: O prophet souls of all the years

Five Years Ago: Above the starry spheres

Four Years Ago: Hail thee, festival day

Three Years Ago: O God, the Holy Ghost

Two Years Ago: Hail festal day, through every age

One Year Ago: Spirit of grace and health and pow'r

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Phebe Hanaford

Phebe Hanaford, born today in 1829, was not only the fourth woman ordained in the United States (in the Universalist Church) but was also an author, activist, poet and hymnwriter.

Born into a Quaker family, she was aware from a young age that women in that tradition were allowed to preach during services, but she tried to put those ideas aside when she married Joseph Hanaford in 1849 and agreed to worship in his Baptist church.  A few years later she learned that Lucy Stone, a prominent activist for abolition and women's rights, was speaking at a local church.  Knowing that her husband would not approve of her attending the lecture, she stayed outside the church but managed to listen anyway.

Following her ordination in 1868, she led churches in the Massachusetts towns of Hingham and Waltham, but when she was called to a Universalist congregation in New Haven, Connecticut, her husband refused to go with her and they separated.  Ellen Miles, a Sabbath school teacher in Phebe's Waltham congregation, accompanied her to New Haven and throughout the rest of her long career, often being called the "minister's wife."

Today's hymn, probably written in the 1860s, not long before Phebe decided to pursue ordination, takes its theme from Exodus 15:20-21, the Song of Miriam, which follows the story of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. It's not quite a paraphrase of that passage, but takes it as a springboard of sorts.

Miriam’s song we’ll echo now,
Singing praises to the Lord;
Who has triumphed gloriously,
Shout the victory of our God!

Sound the timbrel! Loud and high!
Let the song of praise ascend!
Sound the timbrel, far and nigh!
God is our unchanging friend!

When the Red Sea tide o’erwhelmed
Israel’s foes in that great hour
While they sought the promised land,
Then was seen th’Almighty’s power.

Ever thus shall righteousness
Over wrong victorious be,
And the Lord shall be proclaimed
Ruler over land and sea.

Phebe Hanaford. c.1866; alt.
Tune: EVELYN (
Emma L. Ashford, 1905

Poor health and the loss of Ellen Miles, her companion of more than forty years, prevented Phebe from remaining active in her causes in the final years of her life.  She was living unhappily with her granddaughter's family in rural upstate New York, far from the cities and organizations she had loved and led.  Though she had worked for years in the cause of women's suffrage, there is no evidence in local voting records that she cast a vote in 1920, the first national election following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.  At age 91, she was unable to travel to the polls on her own. Fortunately, New York State allowed women to vote a few years earlier, and she did take advantage of that limited opportunity.

She died on June 2, 1921, one month after her 92nd birthday, and was buried in an unmarked grave next to her daughter Florence Hanaford Warner.  There were some attempts over the years to have a headstone erected for her, but that did not happen until 1998, when the headstone (pictured below) was funded by the Unitarian Universalist Women's Heritage Society.

P.S. - As we were discussing Abraham Lincoln's funeral services two days ago, it should be noted that Hanaford also wrote a hymn for an ecumenical memorial service for the President at the Old South Congregational Church in Reading, Massachusetts.  This is the first stanza:

Hushed today are sounds of gladness
From the mountains to the sea;
And the plaintive voice of sadness
Rises, mighty God, to thee.

Combined choirs from the Congregational, Baptist and Universalist churches sang Phebe's hymn to the tune MOUNT VERNON by Lowell Mason (finally, a historical record of a tune!).  She later published it in the closing chapter of her best-selling biography of Lincoln.

Six Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

Five Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford

Three Years Ago: Phebe Hanaford