Saturday, December 17, 2016

John Greenleaf Whittier

The Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) was born today in Massachusetts, where he spent most of his life. Both his birthplace in Haverhill and the home where he lived for nearly sixty years in nearby Amesbury are preserved as historical sites (an honor not bestowed on most hymnwriters). Of course, few of his poems were intended as hymns, but hymnal editors from his own time to the present have captured stanzas from his poetry, assembling them into texts for congregational singing.

As recounted here before, his literary career was encouraged by William Lloyd Garrison, who published many of his early poems and the two men bonded over their commitment to the abolitionist cause. In 1833 Whittier was a delegate to the first convention of the American Anti-Slavery Society, where he signed its declaration (written by Garrison), an act that he was to recall as one of the most significant events of his life. He later served as the Society's secretary, and over the next few years he traveled throughout the northern states lecturing against slavery. Confrontations with proponents of slavery were many, and some were violent.  In 1838 he moved to Philadelphia to edit the Pennsylvania Freeman, a prominent abolitionist newspaper. The paper moved its offices to Pennsylvania Hall, a newly built meeting place for abolitionist organizations, but the building was burned in a riot only three days after its grand opening.

By 1839 the abolitionist cause was beginning to fracture over various disagreements. Whittier broke with Garrison, who insisted that the country would only change by a great tide of moral persuasion. Whittier believed that the cause had to be politically viable for any change to happen, and he joined the Liberty Party in 1840. He continued to write poetry for the anti-slavery cause, both before and after emancipation finally occurred, though most of his later verse (from which the hymns are primarily taken) was written on other themes.

Whittier's Quakerism was more than a religious feeling; he dressed in traditional Quaker garb and conversed in the 'simple speech' of the Quakers (though it may sound quite 'formal' to us today). It's probably natural that he would have disliked the boisterous revival services and camp meetings held by the evangelical preachers of his day, and his most well-known hymn appears to be a reaction against such worship. Today's hymn, like his others, is taken from a longer poem, The Brewing of Soma (first published in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1872), which begins with a description of the rites of early Hindu worship, where the priests concoct a formula which produces 'sacred madness' and 'a storm of drunken joy.'  He goes on to link this practice to various other sects and cultures through history before bringing it home to his readers:

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathern Soma still!

The final six stanzas of the poem are still often sung today, giving us a model for worship that Whittier preferred, incorporating the Quaker values of silence, reverence, and peace.

Dear God, the Source of humankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word
Rise up and follow thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of thy call,
As noiseless let thy blessing fall
As fell thy manna down.

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

John Greenleaf Whittier, 1872; alt.
Tune: REST (Maker) (
Frederick C. Maker, 1887

It should probably be remarked that some of the denominations that Whittier was chastising would eventually include this hymn in their own worship without any compunction.  The preceding stanzas are all but unknown today. Some contemporary commentary also believes this hymn to be relevant in our time because of some connection to 'drug culture,' but again, almost anyone singing this hymn today knows nothing about its origins.

The original first line of the hymn, Dear Lord and Father of mankind, has been altered in a few different ways in recent years. The two most popular seem to be Dear God, embracing humankind, and Dear Lord, who loves all humankind, but the line above predates those, taken from the hymnal project I worked on from 1989-1992.

Composer Frederick C. Maker wrote this tune specifically for this text when it appeared in the Congregational Church Hymnal (1887). Though that book was published in London for use in the UK, REST is now considered to be the American tune, and English hymnals prefer REPTON by C.H.H. Parry (though the final two lines in each stanza have to be repeated unnecessarily).

Eight Years Ago: John Greenleaf Whittier

Six Years Ago: John Greenleaf Whittier

One Year Ago: John Greenleaf Whittier

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