One of the lectionary readings appointed for today in many churches is from Revelation 21: 1-6, John's vision of the Holy City. The theme of the City of God, where sorrow and suffering will no longer exist and where peace and justice will prevail recurs throughout scripture, from Old Testament prophecy all the way to the last book of the New Testament. One of the basic tenets of the more modern concept of social justice is that we should do what we can to bring about those conditions on earth today.
The writer of today's hymn, Felix Adler, was raised in the Jewish faith, the son of a rabbi. As an adult he taught at Cornell and Columbia Universities. In 1876 he founded the New York Society of Ethical Culture, which started a worldwide movement. The concepts of Ethical Culture drew from many traditions and attracted people from a wide spectrum of beliefs, including Christianity, Judaism, and even atheism (naturally, this diversity led to various disagreements in several local chapters).
Hymns were sung at the meetings of the Ethical Culture societies and they compiled their own hymnals, such as Ethical Hymns (1899), from London, which included texts by Ethical Culture members as well as by names more familiar to us, such as Sarah Flower Adams and John Bowring. Adler wrote this hymn in 1878, and it was first published for Christian worship in the 1904 Pilgrim Hymnal.
Hail the glorious golden city,Pictured by the seers of old!
Everlasting light shines o’er it,
Wondrous things of it are told:
Wise and righteous men and women
Dwell within its gleaming wall;
Wrong is banished from its borders,
Justice reigns supreme o'er all.
We are builders of that city,
All our joys and all our groans
Help to raise its shining ramparts;
All our lives are building stones:
Whether humble or exalted,
All are called to task divine;
All must aid alike to carry
Forward one sublime design.
And the work that we have builded,
Oft with bleeding hands and tears,
Oft in error, oft in anguish,
Will not perish with our years:
It will live, and shine transfigured,
In the final reign of Right;
It will pass into the splendors
Of the City of the Light.
Felix Adler, 1878; alt.
Tune: HYFRYDOL (188.8.131.52.D.)
Rowland Hugh Prichard, c. 1830
Adler's concept of the "golden city" was probably not quite the same as ours, but Christian hymns do sometimes adapt others' ideas into a new interpretation. His original text was in twelve four-line stanzas (beginning Have you heard the Golden City /Mentioned in the legends old?), though most hymnals only use three eight-line stanzas (half of the original). The 1904 Pilgrim Hymnal text began Sing we of the golden city / Pictured in the legends old. This version, which went on to appear in several more hymnals (Congregational, Unitarian, and others) contains alterations made by J. Hutton Hynd, another Ethical Culture leader. This text of Adler's is the most widely known outside Ethical Culture circles, though I've also found several others by him in the Union Hymnal (1932), which was published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
We have seen another hymn on this same theme (though more clearly derived from the passage in the book of Revelation) nearly two years ago, O holy city, seen of John, which we sang this morning at my church. It's a favorite of a friend of mine whose birthday is today, though his church seems to be on a different lectionary cycle so he may not have sung it today.