Friday, March 27, 2009

George Matheson

George Matheson was born in Glasgow, Scotland on March 27, 1842. As a child, his eyesight was weak, but it grew progressively worse until his college years, when he became blind. His sisters then learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew so that they could help him in his divinity studies.

He was ordained in the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) in 1868 and gained a great reputation for his preaching, which attracted listeners from great distances. Queen Victoria invited him to preach at the parish church near Balmoral in 1885. Matheson's published works: sermons, theological studies, and poems and hymns (generally dictated to one or another of his sisters, though in later years he had a succession of male secretaries) were also very popular.

We have already seen his most familiar hymn, O love, that wilt not let me go. He later wrote of its creation:

It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.

Well, except this one:

The Hymnal Committee of the Church of Scotland desired the change of one word. I had written originally 'I climbed the rainbow in the rain.' They objected to the word 'climb' and I put 'trace.'"

Some have said 'climb' might actually have been the better word after all; that 'climb' implies taking action rather than waiting for things to get better.

He published only one volume of poems and hymns, Sacred Songs (1890), which contained today's hymn. Matheson was fascinated by the religions of the world, writing a history of them in 1877: Growth of the Spirit of Christianity. He believed that each of them made a favorable contribution to society.

Gather us in, O Love that fillest all;
Gather our rival faiths within thy fold;
Rend each one’s temple veil, and bid it fall,
That we may know that thou hast been of old.

Gather us in —- we worship only thee;
In varied names we stretch a common hand;
In diverse forms a common soul we see;
In many ships we seek one spirit land.

Each sees one color of thy rainbow light,
Each looks upon one tint and calls it heaven;
Thou art the fullness of our partial sight;
We are not perfect till we find the seven.

Some seek a parent in the heav’ns above;
Some wish a human image to adore;
Some crave a spirit vast as life and love;
Within thy mansions we have all and more.

George Matheson, 1890; alt.
A Selection of Psalm Tunes, 1834

Denominations remain quite territorial in our day; I'm not sure that any but the Unitarians have included this hymn in their published hymnals.

The rainbow seems to have been an important image for Matheson; it appears in both these hymns. In a prayer from Moments on the Mount (1884), he writes "Show me that my tears have made my rainbows."

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