Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham

Today is the birthday of Unitarian minister and poet Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, born in Boston in 1793. After graduating from Harvard in 1811, he returned a year later as their first instructor in rhetoric and oratory. In 1815 he was ordained as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Boston (later Unitarian), a position he held for the next thirty-five years.

Approximately fifty of his sermons were published during his lifetime, and he also contributed articles, poems, and translations of verse to various magazines, particularly the Christian Examiner. a leading Unitarian weekly. Many of these translations and poems were collected in Metrical Pieces (1855), a volume which also included fifteen hymns by Frothingham. These were primarily written for various occasions, such as anniversaries and ordinations or installations of friends and colleagues; in one case, for the ordination of his son,
Octavius Brooks Frothingham (who also wrote some hymns himself).

This particular hymn is probably the one that was most often printed in other hymnals, still appearing in Hymns of the Spirit (1937). It was written for the ordination of William Parsons Lunt (June 19, 1828). Serendipitously, we recently encountered Lunt here as the editor of The Christian Psalmist (1841), the hymnal that first printed the hymns and psalm paraphrases of
John Quincy Adams.

O God, whose presence glows in all,
Within, around us, and above,
Thy Word we bless, thy Name we call,
Whose word is truth, whose name is love.

That truth be with the heart believed
Of all who seek this sacred place;
With pow'r proclaimed, in peace received,
Our spirits' light, thy Spirit's grace.

That love its holy influence pour
To keep us steadfast, make us free;
And throw its binding blessing more
Round each with all, and all with thee.

O send thine angel to our side,
With holy calm upon each breast;
For we would know no other guide,
And we can need no other rest.

Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, 1828; alt.
William Leighton, c.1614

One of Frothingham's communion hymns appeared here on Maundy Thursday this year. I'm equally surprised and amused when some people dismiss hymns by Unitarian writers as somehow less legitimate, considering that some of the best-known and loved hymns sung across many denominations have come from those writers. We've already seen some of those, and there will surely be more to come.

A Memoir of Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham was published shortly after his death in 1870 by Frederic Henry Hedge. If that name seems vaguely familiar to you, Hedge is as the poet whose translation of Martin Luther's Ein feste burg remains most widely known here in the US: A mighty fortress is our God.

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