Tuesday, November 3, 2015

William Cullen Bryant

American poet William Cullen Bryant was born today in 1794, in Massachusetts.  His boyhood home, where he also spent summers later in life, is now a historic site.  After a brief period as a lawyer in the western part of the state he moved to New York City to pursue a literary career.

For many years in the mid-nineteenth century he was the editor in chief of the New York Post, when it was known as the New York Evening Post and had a much different reputation than it enjoys nowadays.

In his day he was considered one of the most prominent American poets, though more people probably knew his name than actually read his poetry. He also wrote several hymns, most of which were privately published in 1869.

Bryant was a political activist on several topics, and the Evening Post gave him an excellent platform for disseminating his opinions.  He was against slavery, a supporter of organized labor and other human rights.  He was also one of the founders of the Republican Party in the 1850s, and introduced Abraham Lincoln to New York at Lincoln's famous Cooper Union speech in 1860.

Another cause which he apparently supported was the temperance movement, which campaigned for the abolition of alcoholic beverages.  The following hymn, which appeared in several hymnals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, begins as another saints' day hymn about the imprisonment of Peter (from Acts 12), then develops into a strong denunciation of the perils of drink, which can be overcome by the power of God.

When, doomed to death, th'Apostle lay
At night in Herod's dungeon cell,
A light shone round him like the day,
And from his limbs the fetters fell.

A messenger from God was there,
To break his chain and bid him rise;
And lo! the saint, as free as air,
Walked forth beneath the open skies.

Chains yet more strong and cruel bind
The victim of that deadly thirst
Which drowns the soul, and from the mind
Blots the bright image stamped at first.

O God of love and mercy, deign
To look on those with pitying eye
Who struggle with that fatal chain,
And send them succor from on high!

Send down, in its resistless might,
Thy gracious Spirit, we implore,
And lead the captive forth to light,
A rescued soul, a slave no more!

William Cullen Bryant, 19th cent.
Tune: BRESLAU (L.M.)
As Hymnodus Sacer (Germany), 1625

This hymn was not confined to the separate temperance songbooks used by many local and national groups such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, but also appeared in the denominational hymnals of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1878), the Protestant Episcopal Church (1892) and the United Evangelical Church (1897).

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