Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thousand Thousand Saints Attending

The season of Advent begins today in many traditions, a season of preparation for the birth of Christ on Christmas. There are many different ways of observing the season, different themes for the four Sundays, different colors for the candles of the Advent wreath, but the ideas of expectation and preparation are basically the same.

Interspersed with all the waiting for the birth of a baby, there are also hymns and prayers and readings about the Second Advent, the triumphal coming again of Christ at the end of the world. In those churches that read those lessons today, they may have sung this hymn.

Lo! Christ comes, with clouds descending,
Once for our salvation slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of thy train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ our God returns to reign.

Every eye shall now behold thee,
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at nought and sold thee,
Pierced, and nailed thee to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Those dear tokens of thy passion
Still thy dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To thy ransomed worshipers;
With what rapture, with what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

Yea, amen! let all adore thee,
High on thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory;
Claim the future for thine own:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Charles Wesley, 1758; alt.
Thomas Olivers, 1765

One of Charles Wesley's more than six thousand hymns, this one is based somewhat on an earlier text by John Cennick. Perhaps Wesley thought he could write a better hymn on the theme. Some of Cennick's verses have occasionally been sung with Wesley's hymn.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

John Haynes Holmes

Today is the birthday of John Haynes Holmes (1879 - 1964), a man of great accomplishment who also happened to write several hymns. I wrote about him briefly last July and have always intended to get back to him.

He was, as I related, a founding member of both the NAACP in 1909 and the ACLU in 1920. He was also instrumental in the War Resisters League and worked with Margaret Sanger in developing the Planned Parenthood movement.

He discovered the work and writings of Mahatma Gandhi during World War I, which strengthened and broadened his own pacifistic views, and in 1921 he preached a sermon on Gandhi (who was still largely unknown in this country) titled The Greatest Man Alive in the World Today.

His sermons, described by one of his associate ministers, were "usually a full sixty minutes, clear and logical, step by step, from start to finish, powerfully illustrated with references from history and literature. He left his hearers with the feeling that all that could be said on any particular subject had been said. Holmes experienced his life and times in personal, hyperbolic terms, and he left no arguments unanswered, no iniquity unassailed, no shame unmasked, no goodness unpraised."

Though he was a renowned preacher, he once said that he "would rather write one hymn that would sing its way into the human heart and there be remembered than preach a hundred eloquent sermons." Toward the end of his life 38 of his hymns were published in a collected edition, several of which were written for specific occasions in the life of his church and elsewhere, and had never been published in a hymnal. Unfortunately,
only eight can be seen at the Cyber Hymnal site.

He wrote this hymn in 1907 for the Isles of Shoals Hymn Book (1908). The Isles of Shoals are located off the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire, and there was a Unitarian camp (now Unitarian/UCC) on one of the islands where Holmes vacationed. The tune is Holmes's suggestion from his Collected Hymns.

O God, whose smile is in the sky,
Whose path is in the sea,
Once more from earth’s tumultuous strife
We gladly turn to thee.
Once more to thee our songs we sing,
Once more our prayers we raise,
And for the refuge of thy love
Give thee our deepest praise.

How oft in Nature's temple vast
We meet thee face to face,
Far, far away the heat and dust
And struggling in the race,
When all the myriad sounds of earth
In solemn stillness die,
While wind and wave unite to chant
Their anthems to the sky.

We come as those with toil far spent
Who crave thy rest and peace,
And from the care and fret of life
Would find in thee release.
We come as those who yearn to know
The truth that makes us free,
And feel the love that binds us each
To all, and all to thee.

Creator, soothe all troubled thought,
Dispel all idle fear,
Free every heart of secret doubt
And banish every care;
Until, as shine upon the seas
The silent stars above,
There shines upon our trusting souls
The light of thine own love.

John Haynes Holmes, 1907; alt.
Tune: EVANGEL (C.M.D.)
Gottfried Wilhelm Fink, 1842

In the introduction to his Collected Hymns, Holmes lays out his own ideas about what makes a successful hymn. He believed that the "greatest lines ever written in any hymn" were from Frederick William Faber:

There's a wideness in God's mercy
Like the wideness of the sea.

He listed several hymnwriters that he admired; several of them are also favorites of mine that have been mentioned here and still will be in the months to come. When I have further digested his thoughts on hymnody I am sure I will have more to say on the topic.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

All Good Gifts Around Us

We plow the fields, and scatter
The good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered
By God’s almighty hand;
Who sends the snow in winter,
The warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine,
And soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank you, God, O thank you,God
For all your love.

You only are the Maker
Of all things near and far;
You paint the wayside flower,
You light the evening star;
The winds and waves obey you,
By you the birds are fed;
Much more to us, your children,
You give our daily bread.

We thank you, then, Creator,
For all things bright and good,
The seed time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food;
No gifts have we to offer,
For all your love imparts,
But that which you most welcome,
Our humble, thankful hearts.

Matthias Claudius, 1782; tr. Jane M. Campbell, 1861; alt.
Tune: WIR PFLUGEN ( with refrain)
Johann A.P. Schulz, 1800

This is part of a longer work by Claudius celebrating the harvest thanksgiving festivals in northern Germany. Jane Montgomery Campbell's translation ("not too literal," according to the Hymnal 1940 Companion) takes selected verses to assemble this hymn, beginning with Claudius's third verse:

Wir pflugen und wir streuen
Den Samen auf des Land,
Doch Wachstrum und Gedeiben
Steht nicht in unser Hand.

The tune by Johann Schulz is a setting of an older German folk song, and matched by him to Claudius's text in 1800. It has become widely known and used for this hymn, adopted in several denominations for our American Thanksgiving. Oddly, the Methodist Hymnal of 1935 sets this text to Barnby's ST. ANSELM (not using the refrain).

Happy Thanksgiving to all, wherever you may be spending this holiday.

P.S. The picture above is again from my own church, taken by a friend.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Voices Found: Mabel Johnston Camp

Mabel Johnston Camp (November 25, 1871 - May 25, 1937) was born in Kansas and seems to have lived her life in the Midwest. She was a contralto soloist and accomplished pianist.

Mabel married a lawyer and they both converted to Christianity following their marriage. They were involved with the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and some of her songs first appeared in Moody publications. She often wrote both words and music, sometimes only the music. When her husband became a traveling evangelist, Mabel stayed home in Chicago and raised money for underprivileged children.

In 1920 she wrote an article entitled "And Today" for The Latter Rain Evangel, a popular Pentecostal magazine published by the Stone Church in Chicago. describing her recovery from a number of serious medical problems.

This is one of her more well-known gospel songs, looking ahead to the coming season.

I know of a name, a beautiful name,
That angels brought down to earth;
They whispered it low, one night long ago,
To a maiden of lowly birth.

That beautiful name, that beautiful name,
From sin has power to free us!
That beautiful name, that wonderful name,
That matchless name is Jesus!

I know of a name, a beautiful name,
That unto a Babe was given.
The stars glittered bright throughout that glad night,
And angels praised God in heav’n.

I love that blest name, that wonderful name,
Made higher than all in heaven.
’Twas whispered, I know, in my heart long ago
To Jesus my life I’ve giv’n.

Jean Perry, 1916
Tune: THAT BEAUTIFUL NAME (Irregular with refrain)
Mabel J. Camp, 1916

Some sources have speculated that Jean Perry is really a pseudonym for Mabel Camp (though no one knows why she would have done that, as she was credited as the author of other gospel songs).

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Feast of Christ the King

Today is the last Sunday of the church year in Western denominations that follow the liturgical calendar, and is celebrated as a special day honoring the sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Next week begins a new year with the first Sunday of Advent.

There are many hymns on today's theme, and this is perhaps one of the more familiar ones, by Isaac Watts.

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth its successive journeys run;
Christ's reign shall stretch from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.

To thee shall endless prayer be made,
And praises throng to crown thy head;
Thy Name like sweet perfume shall rise
With every morning sacrifice.

People and realms of every tongue
Dwell on thy love with sweetest song;
And infant voices shall proclaim
Their early blessings on thy Name.

Blessings abound where thou dost reign;
Prisoners shall leap to lose their chains;
The weary find eternal rest,
And all who suffer want are blessed.

Let every creature rise and bring
Peculiar honors to our King;
Angels descend with songs again,
And earth repeat the loud "Amen!"

Isaac Watts, 1719; alt.
John Hatton, 1793

Watts originally wrote fourteen verses, but these five are the ones usually sung today. One that I considered putting back in (still undecided):

The saints shall flourish in thy days,
Dressed in the robes of joy and praise;
Peace, like a river, from thy throne
Shall flow to places yet unknown.

I like the imagery, but it's not earth-based, like the others.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

If Jordan Above Me Shall Roll

Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the Ville du Havre in 1873, a passenger steamship traveling from New York to England, an event commemorated by a well-loved hymn.

Horatio G. Spafford was a successful attorney in Chicago, but the Great Fire of 1871 wiped out his real estate investments and brought hardship to his family: his wife Anna, and his four daughters. In 1873 the family planned to travel to England, but a last minute business commitment caused Spafford to stay behind and send his family on alone. During the early morning hours of November 22, their vessel, the Ville du Havre, was struck by another ship and sank within 12 munutes. Two hundred twenty-eight people perished in the accident, including all four Spafford daughters: Annie, Maggie, Bessie, and Tanetta. Anna Spafford miraculously survived, and sent a telegram to her husband: "Saved alone."

Spafford sailed to join his wife in England, and along the way the captain of his ship pointed out to him the place where the Ville du Havre had gone down. Later on the voyage, he wrote this hymn.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well (it is well)
With my soul, (with my soul),
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed precious blood for my soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

And God, haste the day when our faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Christ shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.

Horatio G. Spafford, 1873; alt.
Philip P. Bliss, 1876

Spafford's inspiration might have come from 2 Kings 4:8-37, the story of a Shunammite woman who, following the death of her son, is still able to say "it is well." There are two more verses which are usually left out of hymnals:

For me, be it Christ, be it Christ hence to live:
If Jordan above me shall roll,
No pang shall be mine, for in death as in life
Thou wilt whisper thy peace to my soul.

But, Christ, ‘tis for thee, for thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord!
Blessèd hope, blessèd rest of my soul!

The second of these verses is probably considered too similar to the last verse and therefore superfluous. The first, with the line "If Jordan above me shall roll" may have been considered a bit too intense, considering the origin of the hymn (though I thought it a good title for today's post).

Philip P. Bliss wrote the music for Spafford's hymn, naming it after the doomed ship. Tragically, Bliss died soon after in a train collision.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Like the Sound of a Great Amen

Today is more about a cousin to a hymn, by a writer and composer who did write hymns.

I recently got a CD by a choral group who shall remain nameless, which had an arrangement of The Lost Chord. I was curious to hear it, as this piece is really a solo song by composer Arthur Sullivan and poet Adelaide Anne Procter. Sullivan had planned to set the poem to music for a long time, but without success, and was finally able to do it when his brother Fred was dying.

The song was number one on the Victorian hit parade for quite some time, with astronomical sales of the sheet music. At a press conference in 1888 that introduced Edison's phonograph machine to London, a recording of the tune on piano and trumpet was played. You can see a series of postcards (including the one above) with the lyrics at this page.

The song was still quite popular early in the twentieth century, and was recorded by such luminaries as Enrico Caruso and Dame Clara Butt in the early days of sound recording.

As I said, it isn't a hymn, and I don't even think it's particularly religious. Let's call it Victorian metaphysics.

Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill-at-ease;
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.

I know not what I was playing
Or what I was dreaming then,
But I struck one chord of music
Like the sound of a great Amen.

It flooded the crimson twilight
Like the close of an angel's psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.

It quieted pain and sorrow
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.

It linked all perplexèd meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.

I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ
And entered into mine.

It may be that death's bright angel
Will speak in that chord again;
It may be that only in heav'n
I shall hear that grand Amen.

There are different versions you can hear at YouTube, including the ones mentioned above, but here's a boy soprano who would have gone over well in Sullivan's time.

Oh, and that CD -- the choral arrangement wasn't very good; the organ accompaniment was more interesting, which I guess is appropriate for this song.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Saint Margaret of Scotland

November 16 is the feast day of Saint Margaret of Scotland (c.1045 - 1093). She was born of English nobility, raised in exile in Hungary, and returned to England in 1066 when her brother Edgar attempted to take the throne after the death of their uncle King Edward the Confessor. Their attempt failed (you may have heard of William the Conqueror) and they fled to Scotland, where Margaret was later married to the Scottish King Malcolm III.

As Queen Margaret, she was active in church reform, bringing the practices of the Celtic church closer to the Roman church, and inviting the Benedictine order to establish monasteries in Scotland. She reportedly rose at midnight daily to attend church services. She was widely known for deeds of charity, and would not eat each day until she had served food to someone in need. She visited and cared for the sick, and set up hostels for the poor. At various times, especially during Lent and Advent she would give feasts for a few hundred commoners in the royal palace. However, there is a legend that no one ever recalled seeing her laugh or smile, so perhaps her piety came at a price.

She was canonized in 1250, and in 1673 was declared the (female) patron saint of Scotland. She came from a rather saintly family, which included her aforementioned uncle, Saint Edward the Confessor and her son, Saint David of Scotland.

I know of no hymns to St. Margaret (though there may well be some in Scotland), but of course there is a Victorian hymn tune named for her.

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

George Matheson, 1882
Albert Lister Peace, 1884

George Matheson and Albert Lister Peace both wrote other hymn texts and tunes, respectively, but none so well known and loved as this one. Matheson was Scottish, so I wonder whether Peace chose his tune name for this text with that in mind.

P.S. The window above is actually from my own church, depicting Margaret feeding the poor.

Friday, November 14, 2008

More Voices Found: Eliza Scudder

Eliza Scudder (November 14, 1821 - September 29, 1896) was born in Barnstable, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and lived in the eastern part of that state for most of her life. Her uncle was Edmund Hamilton Sears, author of It came upon the midnight clear, and he included today's hymn in a book of his own before it was published in any hymnals.

Unlike many other hymnwriters, she was not associated with one single denomination; she was a Congregationalist for a time, then associated herself with the Unitarians. A number of her hymns were included in Longfellow and Johnson's Hymns of the Spirit in 1864. Still later she was captivated by the preaching and ministry of Phillips Brooks at Trinity Church in Boston and became an Episcopalian. (Continuing an inadvertent Christmas theme, Brooks wrote O little town of Bethlehem.)

In 1880 Scudder published Hymns and Sonnets, a small collection of her work.

Thou Grace Divine, encircling all,
A shoreless, soundless sea!
Wherein at last our souls shall fall
O love of God most free!

When over dizzy heights we go,
Thy strong hand guides our eyes,
The other leads us safe and slow
O love of God most wise!

And if we turn us from thy face,
And wander wide and long,
Thou hold’st us still in thine embrace,
O love of God most strong!

But not alone thy care we claim,
Our daily path to win,
We know thee by a dearer Name,
O love of God within!

And filled and quickened by thy breath,
Our souls are strong and free,
To rise o’er grief and fear and death,
O love of God, to thee!

Eliza Scudder, 1857; alt.
Tune: MANOAH (C.M.)
Gioacchino Rossini; adapt. Henry Greatorex, 1851

I'm not exactly sure where in composer Rossini's work this tune is found, but hymnal editors of the mid-nineteenth century liked to adapt melodies from the work of secular composers (operas, oratorios, chamber music, etc.) into hymn tunes. There are very few of these that we sing anymore, but MANOAH has survived better than most, even though it's a bit of a waltz.

I will be looking further into the hymns of Eliza Scudder; though I like and have sung this one I'm seeing some other interesting ones as well.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Ray Palmer

Ray Palmer (November 12, 1808 - March 29 ,1887) was a Congregational minister and hymnwriter who is remembered today primarily for one hymn, though he wrote many others.

Palmer graduated from Yale University in 1830 and two years later was licensed as a pastor. He served churches in Maine, New York, New Jersey, and later in life was corresponding secretary of the American Congregational Union.

His hymns, both original texts and translations of older works were much admired in his time and for many years later; many hymnographers pronounced him the best American hymnwriter of the nineteenth century, and this hymn his finest.

My faith looks up to thee,
Thou Lamb of Calvary,
Savior divine!
Now hear me while I pray,
Take all my guilt away,
O let me from this day
Be wholly thine!

May thy rich grace impart
Strength to my fainting heart,
My zeal inspire!
As thou hast died for me,
O may my love to thee,
Pure warm, and changeless be,
A living fire!

While life’s long maze I tread,
And griefs around me spread,
Be thou my Guide;
Bid joy return today,
Wipe sorrow’s tears away,
Nor let me ever stray
From thee aside.

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold, sullen stream
Shall o'er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love,
Fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above,
A ransomed soul!

Ray Palmer, 1830; alt.
Tune: OLIVET (
Lowell Mason, 1830

The story goes that Lowell Mason, the acclaimed American hymn tune composer, met young Palmer one day and asked him to contribute a new text to a hymnal he was compiling. Palmer gave him this text, which he had written a few years earlier for his personal contemplation and had been carrying in his pocket ever since. Mason then wrote the tune OLIVET and published the new hymn, telling Palmer that he felt it was a once-in-a lifetime text that would far outlive him.

As it happens, this Sunday my church choir will be singing an anthem using Palmer's text Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts, which was a translation from the Latin of
Bernard of Clairvaux. Nothing to do with Palmer's two hundredth birthday, though.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Anne Steele

English hymnwriter Anne Steele died on this day in 1778 (her exact birthdate, in May of 1716, was unrecorded) in the town of Broughton, where she lived her whole life. Her father was a timber merchant and unsalaried Baptist minister, and she committed herself to that church when she was 14, assisting her father in his work until his death. The circumstances of her life were somewhat tragic; a disabling hip injury when she was 19 was followed two years later by the death of her fiance, Robert Elscourt, on the day of their planned wedding.

Her interest in poetry from a young age led to writing hymns, though she resisted having them published until much later. Two volumes were published in 1760 (Poems on Subjects Chiefly Devotional) under the pseudonym of Theodosia, followed by a posthumous third volume in 178o. The income from the books was entirely given to charity.

Steele lived about fifteen miles from Isaac Watts (though they probably never met) and must have sung his hymns. Like him, she wrote psalm paraphrases (still the customary hymns of the time) and also branched out into original themes. Many of her hymns were intensely personal and it was believed that she introduced a certain sentimentality into English hymnody.

It was not until 1860 that her Complete Works were published, including nearly 180 hymns (of which 34 were psalm paraphrases) and 50 "moral poems." By then many of her hymns were widely sung in several different denominations in both England and the US. When the Episcopalian Trinity Church in Boston published their own hymnal in 1808, 59 of its 152 selections were by Steele. The preface claimed that this high proportion was a tribute to Steele's "poetical superiority, and to the ardent spirit of devotion which breathes in her compositions."

Ye high and lowly, rich and poor,
Behold a heavenly feast,
Where mercy speads its bounteous store
For every searching guest.

See, Jesus stands, with open arms,
And calls, and bids you come;
Doubt holds you back, and fear alarms;
But see! there yet is room.

O come, and with God's people, taste
The blessings of great love;
While hope attends the sweet repast
Of nobler joys above.

There, with united heart and voice,
Before the eternal throne,
Ten thousand thousand souls rejoice
In ecstasies unknown.

And yet ten thousand thousand more
Are welcome still to come;
O longing souls, God's grace adore --
Approach, there yet is room!

Anne Steele, 1760; alt.
Tune: NEWBURY (C.M.)
Traditional English melody;
arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

Anne Steele is the first woman writer of hymns to be widely sung; in the latter eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries her hymns were generally considered comparable to those of Watts and Philip Doddridge. In 1888, Henry S. Burrage writes in Baptist Hymn Writers and Their Hymns that more than 100 of Steele's hymns were still included in "modern" hymnals -- more than any other Baptist writer up to that time. Though her name is less known today, if you check your own denomination's hymnal you may still find a hymn or two by Anne Steele.

The tune NEWBURY is another folk melody arranged for the 1906 English Hymnal by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He apparently found the tune in a collection by a "Miss Arkwright" where it was used for a Christmas carol, There's six good days set in a week.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Martin Luther

Today is the birthday of Martin Luther, German theologian and reformer who rebelled against the abuses of the medieval Catholic Church and (the legend goes) began the Protestant Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in Wittenburg.

You can read many more learned articles on Luther and his historic and theological importance than I could provide, so I'll confine myself to his hymns.

Luther had some musical training in his youth and played both the lute and the flute. He composed many of the tunes sung with his hymn texts, which numbered about three dozen and were published intermittently during his lifetime. Since each of his hymns have been translated into other languages numerous times, it sometimes seems that there are many more.

This is undoubtedly his most famous hymn (taken partially from Psalm 46) sung across nearly all Christian denominations -- even Catholic hymnals include it now -- and 1t also has its own separate Wikipedia entry.

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper 'mid the raging flood
Of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
With craft and power great,
And, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not an equal.

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right one on our side,
The One of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, verily;
Anointed One by name,
From age to age the same,
And Christ shall win the battle.

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
The truth to triumph through us:
The powers of evil grim,
We tremble not for them;
Their rage we can endure,
For lo, their doom is sure,
One little word shall fell them.

That word above all earthly powers,
No thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours
Through God who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
This truth shall last forever.

Martin Luther, 1529; tr. Frederick F. Hedge, 1853; alt.
Martin Luther, 1529

This is the version most familiar to American singers. There are reportedly more than seventy different translations from Luther's German text into English, though most of them are not regularly sung. A popular translation used in the UK is by Thomas Carlyle:
A safe stronghold our God is still

Industrious translator
Catherine Winkworth contributed
A sure stronghold our God is he

Henry J. Buckoll took a crack at it:
A tower of strength our God doth stand

and Richard Robinson Whittingham gave us
A mountain fastness is our God

Elizabeth Wordsworth (daughter of hymnwriter Christopher Wordsworth) translated it as
God is a stronghold and a tower

Godfrey Thring, writer of many hymn texts, came up with
A fortress sure is God our King

These seven were all nineteenth century translations, developed to meet a growing demand for hymns -- editors probably wanted unique translations for their new hymnals before the Hedge and Carlyle versions became the standards. Supposedly there are ten times as many more out there! And that's not counting the many
translations into other languages (click on the flags).

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Spirit, Now From Heaven Descending

Dwell in me, O blessèd Spirit,
How I need thy help divine!
In the way of life eternal,
Keep, oh, keep this heart of mine.

Dwell in me, oh, dwell in me;
Hear and grant my prayer to thee;
Spirit, now from heav’n descending,
Come, oh, come and dwell in me.

Let me feel thy sacred presence;
Then my faith will ne’er decline;
Comfort thou and help me onward,
Fill with love this heart of mine.

Dwell in me, O blessèd Spirit,
Gracious Teacher, Friend divine,
For the home of bliss that waits me
O prepare this heart of mine.

Martha J. Lankton, 19th c.
Tune: DWELL IN ME ( with refrain)
Georgia Guiney Berkey, 19th c.

This may be our final Sunday hymn of the Spirit for a while, as Advent is just around the corner and I won't need the more general themes we've been using since the summer months. So I'm combining two of those themes, using one that's also a gospel song. There will probably still be more of these (as well as the social justice and communion themes) as they coincide with various hymnic birthdays.

Martha Lankton doesn't seem to be very well-known or very prolific -- perhaps she belongs in the More Voices Found category? Actually, she's about as well-known as possible, because Lankton was a pseudonym for Fanny Crosby, sometimes reputed to have written more than eight thousand gospel songs. Some of her publishers thought that their hymnals and songbooks shouldn't appear to be quite so full of Crosby's material, so Fanny was given several different aliases (including a number of male ones). When I first encountered this one years ago, I thought I had found another woman writer, and didn't realize my mistake for quite some time.

Georgia Berkey also seems particularly obscure, and I have recently wondered whether that name is also a pseudonym, perhaps even in this case for one of Crosby's many male composer collaborators, such as William Howard Doane or John R. Sweney.

Friday, November 7, 2008


My silence this week (and belatedness at posting the James Montgomery's piece) was due to Blogger issues. Some bug or glitch in the system was not allowing me to create new posts for the last few days. It seems to be cleared up for the moment, which is a good thing because next week is a big one.

James Montgomery

Hymnwriter James Montgomery was born on November 4, 1771 in Ireland. His parents were missionaries in the Moravian Church, and when James was very young they were sent to the Caribbean, leaving him behind in a Moravian comunity. Both parents died within a few years without returning to their son. Montgomery was raised and educated by the Moravians, but left the church in young adulthood.

Unsuccessful at various occupations, he eventually found some measure of success as the editor of a newspaper, the Sheffield Iris, though he was imprisoned twice for publishing articles that were considered inflamatory. He later published Prison Amusements, a book of his poetry written while in jail. He continued to write poetry and also became an abolitionist duroing this time.

At the age of 43 he applied to the Moravians to be readmitted to their fellowship, including this poem with his appeal:

People of the living God,
I have sought the world around,
Paths of sin and sorrow trod,
Peace and comfort nowhere found.
Now to you my spirit turns--
Turns a fugitive unblest;
Brethren, where your altar burns,
O receive me into rest.

Upon rejoining the church, he bacame an active member of the Bible Society and supporter of mission work. He wrote more than 400 hymns (many still familiar today), published in three volumes: Songs of Zion: Being Imitations of Psalms (1822), The Christian Psalmist (1825) and Original Hymns for Public, Private and Social Devotion (1853). This short hymn sung by many denominations is from Psalm 27, not a full paraphrase but using the same theme.

God is my strong salvation:
What foe have I to fear?
When fearful of temptation,
My light, my help is near.
Though hosts encamp around me,
Firm in the fight I stand,
What terror can confound me,
With God at my right hand?

Place on our God reliance,
My soul, with courage wait,
God's truth be thine affiance,
When faint and desolate.
God's might thy heart shall strengthen,
God's love thy joy increase,
Mercy thy days shall lengthen;
For God will give thee peace.

James Montgomery, 1822; alt.
Southern Harmony, 1844

We have seen another well-known Montgomery hymn here. Another of his hymns is very similar to Who are these like stars appearing (derived from the same passage in Revelation), though ultimately not as satisfying, I think.

Montgomery died on April 30, 1854, having overcome the difficulties of his earlier life and gained the affection of his adopted hometown of Sheffield, which honored him in a number of ways after his death. Once asked which of his poetic works would be remembered, he replied "None, sir, nothing except perhaps a few of my hymns."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

But Now With Glory Crowned

I'm still in an All Saints kind of mood, since my church (and maybe yours) will be celebrating that occasion today. Today's hymn is a little different from the grand hymns of praise, like yesterday's, or the classic For all the saints (which will be the opening hymn in many churches today). A paraphrase of the opening verses of Hebrews 12, it not only sings of the saints, it reminds us that we will join with them one day. It has been in the Episcopal hymnal since 1826.

Lo! what a cloud of witnesses
Encompass us around!
Those once like us with suffering tried,
But now with glory crowned.

Let us, with zeal like theirs inspired,
Strive in our daily race;
And, freed from every weight of sin,
Their holy footsteps trace.

Behold a Witness nobler still,
Who, moved by pitying love,
Endured the cross, despised the shame,
Now ever reigns above.

Thither, forgetting things behind,
Press we to God's right hand;
There, with the Savior and the saints,
Triumphantly to stand.

Translations and Paraphrases (Scottish), 1802; alt.
Tune: ST. MAGNUS (C.M.)
Jeremiah Clarke, 1707; harm. William H. Monk, 1868

Some will quibble with my choice of tune. The usual tune is ST. FLAVIAN, which I think is a little dreary for a triumphant text such as this one. The melody of ST. MAGNUS keeps moving upward, leading to a strong climactic point in its last line and fitting better the last lines of these verses. ST. FLAVIAN is fine for the Lenten text it is often paired with, but I've never liked it here. After several years of hearing that no one would ever change it, I finally found some (unneeded) vindication: ST. MAGNUS was indeed used with this text in the Church Choral-Book of 1860.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Feast of All Saints

November 1 is celebrated in many Western traditions as All Saints' Day, a commemoration of all saints, known and unknown. The early church believed that all those martyred for the faith should have a particular day named for their remembrance (the beginning of the various calendars of saints), but as time went on they ran out of days. It was decided that there should be one day for all martyrs and saints (though this did not supplant the individual days of commemoration), and the Eastern church seems to have chosen a day as early as the fifth century (now observed on the first Sunday after Pentecost. The day in Western tradition dates from the seventh century, first celebrated in May and later moved to November 1.

Many churches today move it again; if your church celebrates it, it will likely be tomorrow, and generally the first Sunday in November.

Today's hymn dates from eighteenth century Germany, with a popular nineteenth century translation. Heinrich Theobald Schenk, a pastor's son, wrote this text with imagery from Revelation 7, describing the throng of saints in heaven. It's absolutely one of my ten all-time favorites.

Who are these like stars appearing,
These before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
Who are all this glorious band?
Alleluia! Hark, they sing,
And to God their tribute bring.

Who are these of dazzling brightness,
These in God’s own truth arrayed,
Clad in robes of shining whiteness,
Robes whose luster ne’er shall fade,
Ne’er be touched by time’s rude hand?
Whence come all this glorious band?

These are they who have contended
For their Savior’s honor long,
Wrestling on till life was ended,
Following not the sinful throng;
These who well the fight sustained,
Triumph by the Lamb have gained.

These are they whose hearts were riven,
Sore with woe and anguish tried,
Who in prayer full oft have striven
With the God they glorified;
Now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

These, like priests, have watched and waited,
Offering up to Christ their will;
Soul and body consecrated,
Day and night to serve God still:
Now in that most holy place
Blest they stand before God's face.

Heinrich Theobald Schenk, 1719; tr. Frances E. Cox, 1861; alt.
Darmstadt Gesangbuch, 1698

Schenk's text was probably written for this slightly older tune which, though it has had a number of names in hymnals of the last hundred years, was originally matched with a text that began Zeuch mich, zeuch mich mit dem Armen.

P.S. The illustration above, the glorious band in their golden crowns, is by
Fra Angelico, the Italian Renaissance painter. Who are these? He probably could name them all; most seem to have been painted with particular details, such as what they are wearing or what they are holding, that would identify each one.