Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mary Artemesia Lathbury

Today is the birthday of Mary Lathbury, born in 1841 in northern New York state. She attended art school after high school graduation, and went on to teach art for some years before turning more to writing, primarily for childrens' magazines and then books, which she illustrated herself.

She became the associate editor of Sunday School publications for the Methodist Episcopal Church where she continued writing and illustrating. John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister and later bishop, was a friend and Lathbury regularly attended the summer sessions at the Chautauqua Institution, which Vincent founded in the 1870s. Lathbury began writing hymns for worship and sometimes for Bible study classes at Chautauqua, often based on particular requests from Vincent, and sometimes set to tunes by the Institute's music director, William Fisk Sherwin. She became known as the poet laureate of Chautauqua, and her songs are still sung there today. In her own time, several were published in Chautauqua Carols (1878) though she continued to write new texts practically every year for many years after that, often for special occasions (such as when President Grant visited Chautauqua) or anniversaries.

Her two most familiar hymns have already been covered here on previous birthdays, and they each have appeared in hundreds of hymnals. Today's hymn is not nearly so well-known; Hymnary.org has only found four appearances of it thus far. Worship at Chautauqua was (and is) always nondenominational, and it may be that the theme of unity expressed here accounts for its scarcity.

O Shepherd of the Nameless Fold,
One promised church to be,
Our hearts with love and longing turn
To find their rest in thee;

And even now its heav’nly walls
Unseen around us rise,
And deep in loving human hearts
Its broad foundation lies.

From out our old, divided state,
And centuries of strife,
Thy hand, O Shepherd of the flock,
Is lifting us to life.

O blest dominion, happy fold,
The unity to be,
Our hearts in love and worship turn
To find themselves in thee!

Its bounds are known to God alone,
For they are set above;
The length, the breadth, the height are one,
And measured by God's love.

Mary Lathbury, 1881; alt.
William Jones, 1789

Mary Lathbury also strongly supported the cause of temperance, and some of her hymns appeared in the White Ribbon Hymnal (1892) published by the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Earlier she had co-written the book Women and Temperance (1883) with Frances E. Willard, the president of the WCTU.

Though people had often requested it, Lathbury published no single collection of her verse in her lifetime. Two years after her death in 1913, Poems of Mary Artemesia Lathbury, Chautauqua Laureate was finally issued. including a foreword by Bishop Vincent and a brief sketch of her life by Frances Willard.

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