Monday, July 25, 2016

Maria Weston Chapman

Maria Weston Chapman (July 25, 1806 - July 12, 1885) was born in Weymouth, Massachusetts, the oldest of eight children.  When she was in her teens, a wealthy uncle took her to England to complete her education, and upon returning to Boston she became the principal of the Young Ladies' High School, a new progressive school.

In 1830 she married Henry Grafton Chapman, a prominent abolitionist. Maria also joined the abolition movement, and in 1833 she was a founding member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society with eleven other women (including two of her sisters).

Maria gradually grew more and more committed to the cause, particularly after she got to know William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the best-known abolitionist in the country.  She became Garrison's assistant, helping him to run the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and she also edited The Liberator, the weekly abolitionist newspaper he published. She avoided public speaking, and worked behind the scenes, organizing fundraisers and eventually writing her own material for the cause.

In 1836 she compiled, contributed to, and published Songs of the Free, and Hymns of Christian Freedom, which may have been the first songbook of the abolition movement.  In the introduction to the collection, Chapman writes that those who were working for the end of slavery felt the need for "...the encouragement, consolation, and strength afforded by poetry and music." There were new hymn texts by people in her circle, including Garrison, her sisters, and other prominent women writers such as Eliza Follen and Lydia Sigourney, and she interspersed these among hymns by prominent hymnwriters such as Watts, Wesley, James Montgomery, Reginald Heber, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Those older hymns had not been expressly written against slavery, but Chapman chose texts that included the same themes of justice and freedom that her contemporaries were using.  She also included other poetry that was not written for singing (that is, in regular meters).

Today's hymn is one of those written by Chapman.

O God of Freedom, bless this night
The steadfast hearts that toil as one,
Till thy sure law of truth and right
Alike in heav'n and earth be done.

A piercing voice of grief and wrong
Goes upward from the groaning earth!
Oh true and holy Lord! how long?
In majesty and might come forth!

Yet, God, rememb'ring mercy too,
Behold th'oppressors in their sin;
Make all their actions just and true,
Renew their wayward hearts within.

From thee let righteous purpose flow,
And find in every heart its home,
Till truth and justice reign below;
On earth thy free dominion come.

Maria Weston Chapman, 1836; alt
Lowell Mason, 1830

This text was titled Monthly Concert of Prayer for Emancipation, and "this night," as mentioned in the first line of the text, was footnoted "the last Monday night of every month," which was apparently the regular meeting time for Garrison's Society and this may have been emulated in other abolitionist groups.

Songs of the Free contained texts only, no tunes. At the close of the book's introduction, Chapman wrote:

The machinery of metres, names of tunes, numerals, and characters has been omitted, because they are useless to those who are unable to sing, and because the spirit and the understanding are a sufficient directory to those who can.

Song leaders in local abolitionist groups were free to choose whichever tunes they wanted, and likely chose familiar tunes that most people would know (such as the tunes of Bostonian Lowell Mason, which quickly spread within a few years of publication).

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