Saturday, June 18, 2011

Samuel Longfellow

Unitarian minister, hymnwriter and editor Samuel Longfellow (June 18, 1819 - October 3, 1892) was born in Portland, Maine, the younger brother of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

His first major hymnological undertaking was while he was still a student at Harvard Divinity School, when he and his friend
Samuel Johnson compiled a new hymnal for Unitarian churches, A Book of Hymns for Public and Private Devotion (1844). The book was successful, selling out and requiring a second edition two years later, which they revised and updated. Several years later the two collaborated again, publishing Hymns of the Spirit (1864), much of which they edited while on an extended European vacation.

These two books were criticized for the liberties which Longfellow and Johnson took with the hymn texts they included. They drew their material from a wide variety of sources, including the hymnals of several different denominations, and were not hesitant to alter the texts to conform to Unitarian beliefs. Longfellow explained their reasons to another Unitarian minister in a letter not long before his death.

It is the principle of adaptation to a special use which is the only justification of changes in hymns that I can offer. It is a question of using or not using which makes it needful to change (1) some verses originally written not as hymns, yet which one wants to use as such; (2) some hymns written by persons of different beliefs from those who are to use the hymn-book, phrases in which could not be conscientiously said or sing by the latter, yet which from their general value of strength, fervor, or tendeness could ill be spared. If I had been making a collection of hymns or religious poetry for private reading, I should not have altered a single word.

Nothing here is particularly unusual; as I have said many times, hymnal editors have always done this, long before Johnson and Longfellow, and right up to the present day. However, they were particularly known in their own day for their editorial changes. The sister of one of their friends,
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, wrote the following limerick:

There once were two Sams of Amerique
Who belonged to a profession called clerique.
They hunted up hymns and cut off their limbs,
These truculent Sams of Amerique.

Of course, the hymns that the two men wrote themselves did not have to be altered, though sometimes they were altered when included in later hymnals edited by others (no one gets a pass). This hymn of Longfellow's has appeared in at least a hundred collections, according to

God of the earth, the sky, the sea!
Maker of all above, below!
Creation lives and moves in thee,
Thy present life in all doth flow.

Thy love is in the sunshine's glow,
Thy life is in the quickening air;
When lightnings flash and storm winds blow,
There is thy power; thy law is there.

We feel thy calm at evening's hour,
Thy grandeur in the march of night;
And when the morning breaks in pow'r,
We hear thy Word, “Let there be light.”

But higher far, and far more clear,
Thee in our spirits we behold;
Thine image and thyself are there,
Indwelling God, proclaimed of old.

Samuel Longfellow, 1864
John Hatton, 1793

Longfellow's collected texts were published after his death as Hymns and Verses (1894), edited by his niece, Alice Longfellow. They continue to appear in hymnals today, and not just Unitarian ones. I have presented a number of others over the last few years on other dates than his birthday, which you can find by clicking his tag/label below.

There is a fairly recent Longfellow biography, The Quiet Radical (2007) by Joseph C. Abdo which I have not yet read but hope to soon. And tomorrow, at least one of Longfellow's hymns will be sung in
this hymn festival in California, though I have not heard which one yet.

Three Years Ago: Samuel Longfellow

Two Years Ago: Samuel Longfellow

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