Sunday, June 28, 2009

Frederick William Faber

Today is the birthday of priest and hymnwriter Frederick William Faber (1814 - 1863), born in Yorkshire. Educated at one of the colleges of Oxford, he was ordained in the Church of England in 1837. Faber apparently had a lifelong interest in St. Wilfrid, and in 1844, published a biography, St. Wilfrid, Bishop of York.

Faber was influenced by John Henry Newman and the Tractarian (or Oxford) movement, which believed that Anglicanism had become too liberal, and that it should move closer to Roman Catholicism. In fact, Newman shocked many by converting to Catholicism in 1845, and Faber followed in 1846. He established a religious order in Staffordshire, the Brothers of the Will of God, choosing St. Wilfrid as their patron saint.

Faber believed that English Catholics needed new hymns of their own, rather than only translations from earlier, continental sources, or Protestant borrowings, and wrote many during his lifetime (unsurprisingly, one of his popular collections, Jesus and Mary (1849), included a hymn to St. Wilfrid.). A later volume which collected most of his texts from other sources and titled simply Hymns was first published in 1861 and went through many editions.

Today, his hymns are found in most hymnals, having never been limited to Catholic ones. There were various changes made over the years for theological and other reasons, but there are a few of his texts that most hymnsingers know. This text is perhaps the one most-tinkered-with, and I couldn't keep from doing yet another version.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God's justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heav'n;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

Longing souls, come nearer Jesus,
Come, oh come not doubting thus,
But with faith that trusts more bravely
God's huge tenderness for us.
For we make that love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify God's strictness
With a zeal unlike God's own.

For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper room of bliss.

Frederick W. Faber, 1854; alt.
Tochter Sion, 1741

Faber wrote this text in four line verses, and added to it over the years; the final version has thirteen verses. Some hymnals still retain the four-line verses, but it seems to me that more these days use eight-line verses, each one combining two of the original verses. The hymn rarely follows Faber's original order either; the combined verses are assembled in many different sequences, not to mention including or leaving out various verses. In fact, Faber's original text began with a verse that is generally omitted these days:

Souls of men! why will ye scatter
Like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts! why will ye wander
From a love so true and deep?

There seems to be no widely accepted tune either, though I admit that my choice, coming from an eighteenth-century German tune book, probably doesn't appear in print anywhere (I like it, though!). You may know the hymn to IN BABILONE or BEECHER (both eight-line tunes) or WELLESLEY (four-line tune by Lizzie Tour­jée), but it has been sung to many over the years, apparently even ERIE (better known as What a friend we have in Jesus -- it fits but I really can't imagine using it here). Searching for a tune I also considered MOUNT OF OLIVES, which is similar to IN BABILONE, but better (less frantic), I think.

One Year Ago: Eliza E. Hewitt


Adam said...

Try CHARLESTOWN with the four-line version.

C.W.S. said...

Yup, that works too. I have a tendency not to match English Victorian texts with American folk melodies like this (assuming we're talking about the same CHARLESTOWN), but that's a personal quirk.