Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (August 29, 1809 - October 7, 1894) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and lived there for most of his life. Educated as a physician, he was for many years a professor or anatomy at Dartmouth College and Harvard Medical School, his alma mater.

There is always a "however" when Holmes's life is recounted, because his legacy has little to do with his education and occupation.  He is much more known today in the field of American literature and as a founder of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, which published many of his poems and essays.

Several of his poems have been adapted as hymns over the last century. Holmes is generally associated with the Unitarian faith, though his views on theology were perhaps even more broad than that denomination's reputation might suggest.  He once claimed that he "believed more than some and less than others."  The Episcopal Hymnal 1940 Companion says that several of his poems (sung as hymns in many churches) were "written in revolt against the merciless dogmas of his Calvinistic forefathers."

Today's hymn (the closing stanzas of a much longer poem) is certainly one of those texts in revolt.  Holmes presented it for the first time at the Unitarian Festival on June 2, 1882. Its theme of universal salvation (that everyone, regardless of religious belief, will be reconciled to God) renders this hymn unsingable in many places, and finds it in only two hymnals published in the early twentieth century, but I think there are certainly churches where is could still be sung today.

Though scattered far the flock may stray,
Your own as Shepherd you shall claim -—
The saints who never learned to pray,
The friends who never spoke your name.

When shall the gathered church rejoice
Your word of promise to recall -—
One shelt'ring fold, one Shepherd's voice,
One great Creator over all?

Dear Savior, while we hear your voice
That says, "The truth shall make you free,"
Your people still by loving choice,
Help us sing praise eternally.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1882; alt.
Tune: WAREHAM (L.M.)
William Knapp, 1738

Four Years Ago: Oliver Wendell Holmes

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