Sunday, December 30, 2012

Not With Costly Treasure

On the sixth day of Christmas...

Many churches are still celebrating the Nativity in one way or another, probably with the many familiar carols and hymns of the season.  But, as I have mentioned before, there are hundreds of hymnals from the last century or so with Christmas music that no one sings any more, and, honestly, may never have sung very often.

Like the sound of many waters
Rolling on through ages long;
In a tide of rapture breaking—
Hark! the mighty choral song!

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Let the heav’nly portals ring!
Christ is born, the Word of glory, 

Born a child and yet a king

Lo! the Morning Star appeareth,
O’er the world bright beams are cast;
Christ, the Alpha and Omega,
Christ is born, the First, the Last.

Clap your hands with exultation!
Sing aloud, rejoice with mirth,
Peace her silver wing hath folded:
Lo! she comes to dwell on earth!

Savior, not with costly treasure
Do we gather at thy throne,
All we have, our hearts we give thee,
Consecrate them thine alone.

Fanny Crosby, 1902; alt.
Tune: WEBSTER GROVES ( with refrain)
Hubert P. Main, 1902

You can see more Christmas songs by Fanny Crosby at this entry from a few years ago.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Saint John the Evangelist

Today is the feast day of Saint John the Evangelist, one of the twelve disciples (perhaps the "beloved disciple")  and author of three Epistles and one Gospel.  Throughout much of Christian history he was also believed to be the author of the Book of Revelation during his exile to the Greek island of Patmos.. Though this is now believed by some scholars to be unlikely, it is the subject of  today's hymn by the seventeenth-century French priest Nicolas le Tourneaux.

An exile for the faith, 
Of his incarnate Lord,
With eagle gaze beyond the stars
The loved disciple soared.

There the new City, bathed
In clear celestial light,
The home of bliss his sprit saw,
The land that hath no night.

There heard through highest heav'n
The Alleluia sound,
The great Amen that ever rolls
Th'eternal throne around.

O grant us, Christ, with John
Into these courts to gaze,
To see the rainbow 'round thy throne
And hear those songs of praise.

Nicolas le Tourneaux, 1686
tr. Edward Caswall, 1849; alt.
Tune: ADVENT (S.M.)
John Goss, 1872 

Today is also the birthday of composer John Goss (December 27, 1800 - May 10, 1880), an eminent English church musician of the Victorian age who trained several other composers of the following generations.   

Four Years Ago: Saint John the Evangelist

Four Years Ago: Sir John Goss

Three Years Ago: Saint John the Evangelist


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Hail the Sun of Righteousness

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,

God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest heav’n adored;
Christ the ever-living Word;
Late in time, behold him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Lo! you come with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
Ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that we no more may die.
Born to raise us from the earth,
Born to give us second birth.

Charles Wesley, 1739; alt.
Tune: MENDELSSOHN ( with refrain)
Felix Mendelssohn, 1840;
adapt. William H. Cummings, 1855

Charles Wesley's text, originally titled Hymn for Christmas Day, has been altered by many hands since shortly after it was first published, long before it became familiar around the world.  Indeed, his original first line was Hark! how all the welkin rings, "welkin" being a word for the vault of heaven.

When we were working on our hymnal project for the Metropolitan Community Churches, we received an angry letter from someone accusing us of changing this Christian hymn into a pagan one because we had supposedly exchanged "Sun" for "Son" in the third stanza.  However, "Sun" was actually Wesley's word, coming from Malachi 4:2: But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. This is part of a longer passage where the prophet Malachi is telling of the promised Savior to come.  I still wonder how many people who sing this hymn by heart assume that the word really is "Son." And of course, I couldn't resist using the line as the title of this post.

Wesley's final two stanzas are rarely, if ever, sung any more (though I would love to hear if anyone did sing them this year).  They would sound a bit odd to many.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conq’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.
Let us thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

Before the text became joined to Mendelssohn's tune, it was sung to several others, and often to the tune we now know as EASTER HYMN, divided into four-line stanzas with no refrain, but with an Alleluia at the end of each line.

Mendelssohn's tune is derived from the first twenty measures of the second movement of his Festgesang, composed in 1840.  The composer thought that this melody might go well with another song of some sort, but he wrote to a friend that "it will never do to sacred words. (...) The words must express something gay and popular, as the music tries to do."  After Mendelssohn's death. William H. Cummings, organist at Waltham Abbey in England, adapted the tune to Wesley's text, probably not knowing anything of  Mendelssohn's letter.

Three Years Ago: Where is this stupendous stranger?

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Dawn of Redeeming Grace

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and Child.
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born!

Silent night, holy night,
Child of God, Love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Josef Mohr, 1818; alt.
Tune: STILLE NACHT (Irregular)
Franz Gruber, 1818

Many people all over the world know the now-famous story of this popular Christmas hymn, written for the church of St. Nicholas in Oberndorf, Austria.  The church organ was broken that Christmas, and Fr. Mohr, the assistant priest, and Franz Gruber, the organist, collaborated on a new song that could be sung as a duet, with guitar accompaniment and a girls' chorus.

The first translation into English appears to have been by Emily Elizabeth Steele Elliott (Stilly night, holy night) for the choir of her church in Brighton in 1856 (though it was not published until years later), and was followed by several others, including these: 

Holy night! peaceful night! (1863) by Miss J.M. Campbell
Silent night! hallowed night (1865) Christian Hymnbook
Holy night! calmly bright (1867) by Mary D. Moultrie
Peaceful night, all things sleep (1872) Carols for St. Stephen's Church
Silent night, holiest night (1875) by Dr. A. Edersheim
Still the night, holy the night! (1881) by Stopford A. Brooke 

The current familiar translation, by an unknown writer, first appeared in an Episcopal Sunday School Hymnal (1871) edited by Charles Hutchins, the rector of Grace Church in Medford, Massachusetts.

I know that people continue to write new Christmas hymns for their churches' worship, but it 's unlikely that any of them will become as widely known as this one.

Two Years Ago: Jesus our Brother, strong and good

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Favored of the Lord

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is sometimes at the center of worship on the last Sunday in Advent.  The story of the Annunciation, told in Luke 1:26-38 (subject of a separate feast day on March 25), describes the coming of the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce the birth of Christ.  Mary's agreement to bear this child sets events in motion to bring about the promised reign of God.

Today's anonymous hymn text was first published in a small collection called Hymns for the Festivals and Saints' Days of the Church of England in 1846.  Unlike many hymns of its day, the number of hymnals that include it has actually increased up to the present day.

Praise we the Lord this day,
This day so long foretold,
Whose promise shone with cheering ray
On waiting saints of old.

The prophet gave the sign
For faithful souls to read;
A virgin born of David’s line
Shall bear the promised seed.

Ask not how this should be,
But worship and adore,
Like her whom heaven’s majesty
Came down to shadow o’er.

Then Mary bowed her head
To hear the gracious word,
The maiden destined to become
The favored of the Lord.

Bless├Ęd shall be her name
In all the Church on earth,
Through whom that wondrous mercy came,
Th'incarnate Savior’s birth.

O Jesus, Mary's son,
We praise thee and adore,
Who art with our Creator One
And Spirit evermore.

author unknown, 1846; alt.
Thomas Attwood Walmisley, 1853

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Horatius Bonar

Scottish hymnwriter Horatius Bonar (December 19, 1808 - July 31, 1889) wrote hymns which are loved by many, even though the churches he served as minister were not allowed to sing them.  Indeed, the Free Church of Scotland, of which he was a founding member, only voted to allow hymns to be sung in their worship in 2010.

Bonar was enthusiastically evangelistic; his impulse to leave the established Church of Scotland was rooted in a belief that the state clergy were really civil servants who were not effectively leading people to faith in God.  He later helped the American evangelist Dwight Moody to arrange to tour his revival meetings in Scotland.

O love of God, how strong and true!
Eternal, and yet ever new;
Uncomprehended and unbought,
Beyond all knowledge and all thought.

O wide embracing, wondrous love!
We read thee in the sky above,
We read thee in the earth below,
In seas that swell, and streams that flow.

O heavenly love, how precious still,
In days of weariness and ill,
In nights of pain and helplessness,
To heal, to comfort, and to bless!

We read thy power to bless and save,
E’en in the coldness of the grave;
Still more in resurrection light,
We read the fullness of thy might.

O love of God, our shield and stay
Through all the perils of our way!
Eternal Love, in thee we rest
Forever safe, forever blest.

Horatius Bonar, 1861; alt.
Tune: BOURBON (L.M.)
attrib. Freeman Lewis, 19th c.

For those who like modern hymn tunes, DE TAR by Calvin Hampton also works quite well with this text.

When Bonar was near death, he requested that no biography be written about his life, and no complete account of his life was published for many years afterward, which was unusual for such a popular and well known author and hymnwriter in his day.

Three Years Ago: Horatius Bonar

Two Years Ago: Horatius Bonar

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Charles Wesley

Charles Wesley, born today in 1707, has been called the "sweet singer of Methodism," and the "bard of Wesleyanism" by various writers.  His more than 6500 hymns could be said to have formed the foundation of the Methodist Church for many of its early members.  Charles and his brother John believed in the power of congregational singing to reinforce their teaching and preaching to their followers. 

In those days, the Methodist meetings were held on Friday nights, assuming that most people went to their local Church of England parish on Sunday mornings.  Charles himself always insisted that he remained a faithful member of the Anglican clergy throughout his life, though the Church did not necessarily agree.  Anglican bishops and many of the clergy still maintained at this time that psalm paraphrases were the only acceptable form of congregational singing.  Hymns were sung by the Nonconformist churches, like the Congregationalists, the Baptists, and the Methodists, which made them suspect to the Anglicans, who feared that incorrect doctrine might be transmitted.

Today's hymn by Charles Wesley remains one of his most well-known, though originally his brother thought it overly sentimental.  There are several stories as to its origin, one being that it was written after an angry mob who objected to the Mothodists chased Charles away from a prayer meeting, leading him to compose this hymn on the theme of Jesus' protecting love.

Jesus, lover of my soul,
Let me to thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide,
Till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide;
O receive my soul at last.

Other refuge have I none,
Hangs my helpless soul on thee;
Leave, ah! leave me not alone,
Still support and comfort me.
All my trust on thee is stayed,
All my help from thee I bring;
Cover my defenseless head
With the shadow of thy wing.

Plenteous grace with thee is found,
Grace to free from all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound;
Make and keep me whole within.
Thou of life the fountain art,
Freely let me take of thee;
Spring thou up within my heart;
Rise to all eternity.

Charles Wesley, 1740; alt.
Joseph Parry, 1875

Like many of Wesley's hymns, this one has traveled far beyond its Methodist roots. The website finds this hymn in 2,524 hymnals (which only includes hymnals published in North America, so the total number must be much larger).  In 1899, hymnologist Louis Benson listed it at #3 in The Best Church Hymns, finding it in 104 of the 107 hymnals he researched.  I'm sure it still appears on the favorite list of many people today.

Four Years Ago: Phoebe Worrall Palmer

Two Years Ago: Charles Wesley

Sunday, December 16, 2012

In Mercy Save Thine Israel

For the third Sunday in Advent we take a look back to last week's familiar hymn and find a much lesser known text based on the same material.  The O Antiphons of the eighth century have been set to music in varying ways over the years, but the one we know best, of course,  is O come, O come Emmanuel.

Today's text is also based on the O Antiphons, adapted from the prose version that had appeared in John Mason Neale's Hymnal Noted (1854).  Primary translator Horatio Bolton (Earl Nelson), grand-nephew of the renowned British admiral Lord Nelson, included this hymn in the Sarum Hymnal (1868) which was largely compiled by him.

O Wisdom, spreading mightily,
From out the mouth of God most high,
All nature sweetly ordering,
Within thy paths thy people bring:

Draw near, O Christ, with us to dwell,
In mercy save thine Israel.

Ruler of Israel, God of might!
Who gav'st the law from Sinai's height;
Once in the burning bush revealed.
With outstretched arm thy people shield:

O Root of Jesse! Ensign thou!
To whom the nations' kings shall bow,
From ev'ry foe thy people save,
And give them victory o'er the grave:

O Israel's Sceptre! David's Key!
Come thou and set all people free;
Unlock the gate that bars the road
And lead them to the house of God:

O Dayspring and Eternal Light!
Pierce through the gloom of sorrow's might;
The promised Sun of Righteousness,
Haste with thy rising beams to bless:

O dear Desire of nations! come,
Lead us from earth to heav'n's high home;
Thou chief and precious Cornerstone,
Binding the scattered into one:

O Comforter! Emmanuel! King!
Thy praises we would ever sing;
The nations' hope, the Savior blest,
Take us to thine eternal rest:

Latin; tr. Horatio Bolton and others, 1868; alt.
Tune: MELITA (
John Bacchus Dykes, 1861

This hymn was included in the 1871 hymnal of the Episcopal Church (which is where I found it), on the page opposite O come, O come Emmanuel, with similar instructions for singing one stanza each day between December 17 and 23.  It has not appeared in any later Episcopal hymnals, presumably because it was considered redundant.  No, it will never supplant the hymn we all know, but I thought it worth a look.

Four Years Ago: John Ellerton

Three Years Ago: John Ellerton

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Teach Us In Her Ways to Go

For the second Sunday in Advent we come to a familiar hymn which is a favorite of many, and has spread to most denominations in one form or another.

The O Antiphons are a collection of Latin texts which were sung in the Roman Catholic Church during Advent, one each night from December 17 to 23.  Theie date of origin is unclear, but apparently was no later than the eighth century.  These antiphons contain many different Scripture references which can be seen at the link above.  A later Latin hymn (1710) of only five stanzas was apparently the conduit which led to the English version by John Mason Neale in his Hymnal Noted (1854), which began "Draw nigh, draw nigh Emmanuel."  Neale's version was not a strict translatuon, and gave more attention to the part of each stanza which is a petition.  When the hymn was later published in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), the familiar first line was now in place.

The tune was arranged by Thomas Helmore, the musical editor of the Hymnal Noted, and attributed to an old plainsong melody.  However, for many years no original version was known, and there was speculation that Helmore might have composed the melody himself. Finally, in the 1960s, the original melody (though not set to any text related to the O Antiphons) was discovered in a fifteenth-century manuscript belonging to a French convent.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
Who orderest all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And teach us in her ways to go.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from every tyranny;
From depths of hell thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
Who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times once gave the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.

O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
An ensign of thy people be;
Before thee rulers silent fall;
All peoples on thy mercy call.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of humankind;
Bid thou our sad divisions cease,
And be thyself our Source of peace 

Latin, tr. composite
Tune: VENI EMMANUEL (L.M. with refrain)
plainsong, Mode I,
adapt. Thomas Helmore, 1854

As this hymn spread across different denominations, there were many alterations in the text (including abridgements) and tune.  Prominent theologian Henry Sloane Coffin made his own revisions in 1916, including this version of the final stanza:  

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease,
And fill the world with heaven's peace.

Coffin's alterations were later described by H. Augustine Smith in his Lyric Religion (1931) as "more acceptable than Neale's in their greater freedom and spiritual kinship with the modern church."  Nearly a century later, hymnal editors continue to strive for that modern relevance in this and many other texts.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hymns in the News

There are probably some book collectors and private institutions which are in gleeful anticipation this week at the news that one of only eleven surviving copies of the Bay Psalm Book (1640) will be going on the market.  The Old South Church in Boston, a congregation of the United Church of Christ, voted on Sunday to sell one of the two copies that they own.  The Bay Psalm Book was the first title to be printed in the American colonies, and this copy is expected to bring more than ten million dollars at auction.

The Bay Psalm Book is a collection of psalm paraphrases, rhyming metrical adaptations of the Psalms to be sung in worship.  A group of thirty ministers from among the settlers wanted to produce a new version that was a closer translation from the original Hebrew than the Henry Ainsworth psalter (1612) that they had brought from England.  Perhaps anticipating the conflict that sometimes arises from changing something familiar in congregational worship, the authors in the original introduction to the book conclude:

If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as sone may desire or expect, let them consider that God's Altar needs not our polishings, for we have respected rather a plaine translation, then to smooth our verses with the sweetness of any paraphrase, and so have attended Conscience rather than Elegance, fidelity rather than poetry, in translating the Hebrew words into English language, and David's poetry into English meetre, that so we may sing in Sion the Lord's songs of prayer according to his own will, until he take us from hence, and wipe away all our teares; bid us enter into our Masters's joye to sing eternall Halleluiahs.

Today most churches do not differentiate between psalm paraphrases and hymns, but it was an important distinction for the Pilgrim worshippers of the seventeenth century, who believed that singing the Psalms in this fashion was more a legitimate form of praise to God than the singing of hymns, which were not considered to be the products of divine inspiration.  I recently taught a brief adult education class at my own church on the history of the Episcopal hymnal, and I mentioned the Bay Psalm Book as part of the prior history of congregational singing among English-speaking people, so it was interesting to see this story in the news so soon after.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hope and Freedom Gave Us

The church year begins again today with the first Sunday in Advent. As in previous years, we won't see any Christmas carols in this season, even though you have probably been hearing them in public places for at least a few days. Today's sixteenth century hymn comes from the Bohemian Brethren, a German sect with a strong tradition of congregational singing which later became the Moravian Church.   Johann Roh (also known as Jan) was a priest of the Brethren who also edited their first two hymnals.  Catherine Winkworth, the great translator of so many German hymns, included this in her Chorale Book for England (1863).                                                          
Once he came in blessing,
All our ills redressing,
Came in likeness lowly,
Child of God most holy;
Bore the cross to save us,
Hope and freedom gave us.

Still he comes within us,
Still his voice would win us
From the doubts that hurt us;
Would to truth convert us
Not in torment hold us.
But in love enfold us..

Thus if we can name him,
Not ashamed to claim him,
But will trust him boldly,
Nor will love him coldly,
He will now receive us,
Heal us, and forgive us.

All who thus endureth,
Bright reward secureth;
Come, then, O Lord Jesus,
From our fears release us;
Let us here confess thee,
Till in heav’n we bless thee.

Johann Roh, 1544;
tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1863; alt.
Michael Weisse, 1531