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.

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