Sunday, March 13, 2011

William Channing Gannett

Hymnwriter William Channing Gannett, born today in 1840, was a Unitarian minister who served several different congregations and was widely known in his time as a social reformer. Before the Civil War he had supported and worked for the cause of abolition. He interrupted his studies at the Harvard Divinity School to work with the New England Freedmen's Society in South Carolina during the war, helping former slaves and organizing a school. He apparently was planning to make this his life's work, but after four years his father's poor health brought him back to the North and he finally finished his studies. In later years he became a strong advocate for women's suffrage and education.

His first collection of hymns, Unity Hymns and Chorals (1880) was followed five years later by The Thought of God in Hymns and Poems. Both books were collaborations with his friend Frederick Lucian Hosmer, and the two worked on these books for years afterward, bringing out a number of revised editions with new material.

Gannett worked to encourage ecumenism and unity among churches, belonging to organizations such as the Free Religious Association and the New York state chapter of the Parliament of Religions. In 1887 he wrote Things Commonly Believed Among Us, a broad statement which was adopted by the Western Unitarian Conference. Today's hymn expresses similar concepts, which is probably why it is not more well-known.

It sounds along the ages,
Soul answering to soul;
It kindles on the pages
Of every Bible scroll;
The psalmist heard and sang it,
From martyr lips it broke,
The prophet tongues out-rang it
Till sleeping nations woke.

From Sinai's cliffs it echoed,
It breathed from Buddha's tree,
It charmed in Athens' market,
It hallowed Galilee;
The hammer stroke of Luther,
The Pilgrims' seaside prayer,
The oracles of Concord,
One holy Word declare.

It calls -- and lo, new justice!
It speaks -- and lo, new truth!
In ever nobler stature
And unexhausted youth.
Forever on resounding,
And knowing nought of time,
Our laws but catch the music
Of its eternal chime.

William Channing Gannett, 1894
Bohemian Brethren Hemlandssanger, 1892

What is "It"?

The explanation is not in the text. Modern-day Unitarian preachers will tell you that you're free to decide for yourself what "It" is (such as in this sermon), and that understanding might possibly suit Gannett, but in fact he did have something more concrete in mind. The text as it appeared in The Thought of God in Hymns and Poems was titled The Word of God. Hymnwriters of earlier days such as Philip Doddridge and Charles Wesley had often titled their texts only to see the titles abandoned over the years; while those titles sometimes give us a better insight into the texts than we might otherwise have, few are as essential as the title of this one.

The tune, which comes from the Bohemian Brethren (or Moravians), is named for the children's mission hymn by Percy Dearmer to which it is also matched: Remember all the people / Who dwell in far off lands., which is the kind of text that isn't sung much any more (due to lines such as Some work in sultry forests / Where apes swing to and fro).

In spite of Gannett's interest in ecumenism, his hymns have not received the same wider acceptance in other denominations as those of his collaborator Frederick Lucian Hosmer. Probably only two, Praise to the Living God, and Bring, O morn, thy music are known today in non-Unitarian collections.

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