Sunday, June 13, 2010

In the Desert Ways I Sing

It's the Third Sunday after Pentecost, and we are well into the part of the church year called ordinary time. This will go on for quite a while, until we get around again to the First Sunday in Advent, and there are not many Sundays between now and then that have any particular commemorations. So, as in previous years I have picked a few themes for our Sunday hymns in these "ordinary" Sundays.

The first, always appropriate for the post-Pentecost season, will be hymns of the Holy Spirit. And yes, I used this theme two summers ago, but I am sure we won't run out of good hymns; honestly, the Holy Spirit doesn't get much play in many churches during the rest of the church year, which is mostly constructed around the life of Jesus.

Holy Spirit, Truth divine,
Dawn upon this soul of mine;
Word of God and inward Light
Wake my spirit, clear my sight.

Holy Spirit, Love divine,
Glow within this heart of mine;
Kindle every high desire;
Perish sin in your pure fire.

Holy Spirit, Power divine
Fill and nerve this will of mine;
Grant that I may strongly live,
Bravely bear, and nobly strive.

Holy Spirit, Joy divine,
Gladden now this heart of mine;
In the desert ways I sing,
“Spring, O Well, forever spring.”

Holy Spirit, Peace divine,
Still this restless heart of mine;
Speak to calm this tossing sea,
Stayed in your tranquility.

Holy Spirit, Right divine,
Now within my conscience reign;
Be my Law, and I shall be
Firmly bound, forever free.

Samuel Longfellow, 1864; alt.
Orlando Gibbons, 1623

This hymn has appeared in many different denominational hymnals regardless of the fact that its author, Samuel Longfellow, was a Unitarian. Some hymnals have attributed it as a collaboration between the American Longfellow and Andrew Reed of England, who wrote a similar hymn in 1817 called Holy Ghost, with light divine, and some have even claimed that Longfellow simply rewrote Reed's text for inclusion in Hymns of the Spirit (1864), one of the hymnals Longfellow edited. Longfellow's niece Alice addressed this in the preface to her uncle's collected Hymns and Verses (1897) which she published after his death: The hymn bears some resemblance to one by Andrew Reed, but after careful investigation they appear to be quite distinct.

There's also another Holy Ghost, with light divine written by Rowland Hill in 1783, and I think Reed's text is closer to Hill's than to Longfellow's. I also think it likely that Longfellow knew of one (if not both) of these earlier texts and chose to write his own version of a hymn that would call upon the different aspects of the Holy Spirit; more than that he did not take from either Hill or Reed. When we used this in our hymnal project, we did rearrange a few stanzas, feeling that Firmly bound, forever free was the best closing line for the text as a whole (Longfellow's final line was Spring, O Well, forever spring, certainly not a bad choice either).

P.S. I chose a text by Longfellow on purpose today, even though his birthday is coming up later this week. This afternoon, at a hymn festival in Berkeley, California, he will be presented to many people in a somewhat new light, and they will be singing this hymn of his.

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