Sunday, July 4, 2010

Thou Star-Abiding One

Another Fourth of July is here, and I have to say that I have not yet resolved my thoughts and feelings about nationalistic hymns in church, though they may appear in many hymnals and may be sung in many places (this morning we closed with America the beautiful). I always wonder about the context - what exactly is it we are singing about and why exactly are we singing it here?

The Reverend Elizabeth Kaeton, an Episcopal priest in Chatham, NJ and a wonderful writer with a blog of her own, has developed a Service of Lessons and Hymns for Independence Day which provides a good context, I think. I encourage you to take a few minutes and read through the service, even if you come to it tomorrow or later in the week.

One of her national hymns for the day is probably not one I would have considered, but it's a good one to remember that this land was here long before July 4, 1776, and long before it was "settled" by people who had to sail a long way to get here.

Many and great, O God, are thy things,
Maker of earth and sky;
Thy hands have set the heavens with stars;
Thy fingers spread the mountains and plains.
Lo, at thy Word the waters were formed;
Deep seas obey thy voice.

Grant unto us communion with thee,
Thou star-abiding One,
Come unto us and dwell with us;
With thee are found the gifts of life,
Bless us with life that has no end,
Eternal life with thee.

Joseph R. Renville, 1842
tr. Philip Frazier, 20th cent.
LAC QUI PARLE (Irregular)
Native American tune
adapt. Joseph Renville ?, 1842

This hymn comes to us from the Native American Dakota tradition, probably the one most widely known today, finally appearing in several hymnals of the last 25 years. Joseph Renville's mother was Dakota and his father a French Canadian fur trader. He helped to found a mission to the Dakota people in Minnesota on the shores of Lac qui Parle, and translated Christian texts into the Dakota language. The mission is maintained today as a historical site; the church pictured above was rebuilt in the twentieth century after the original was destroyed by fire in 1854.

Renville published the first Dakota hymnal, Dakota dowanpi kin in 1842, which included this text. Scholarship seems to disagree about whether the tune was adapted from a native melody or whether it was written new, in a similar style. You can read much more about the hymn in a 2007 article by hymnologist Dr. C. Michael Hawn.


Leland Bryant Ross said...

Thanks for the link to Mother Kaeton's blog! You're probably aware that the New Century Hymnal contains a second translation of this hymn.

C.W.S. said...

It does, but I like Renville's original better. I'm also not sure where all those other stanzas came from - I found a third (of uncertain provenance) while researchig this, but NCH has several more.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

I recently noticed that the Japanese "Sambika 21" hymnal contains an original text set to LACQUIPARLE. The choir sang it the last time I was at Japanese Baptist.