Sunday, October 21, 2018

Samuel Francis Smith

Baptist minister and hymnwriter Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895) was born today in Newton, Massachusetts (where he is also buried). Ordained to the ministry in 1834, he was pastor for several churches in Massachusetts and Maine over his long career.

While still a student at Andover Theological Seminary, he began to write poetry and other literary work to support himself. In 1831, his friend, composer and editor Lowell Mason, gave him a songbook in German and asked him to either translate or rewrite some of the texts so that Mason could include them in his musical publications. Smith was supposedly interested a particular tune in the book, which accompanied a German national song and decided to write an American national song for it. This was to be his most lasting legacy: My country, 'tis of thee, first sung at the Park Street Church in Boston for a children's service on July 4, 1831. It's said that he was unaware that the tune had already been used for the English national anthem, God save the King.

Smith would go on to write many more hymns, which have not yet all been documented online at the usual sites. The most complete list probably appears in The Hymn, the journal of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. Baptist hymnologist David W. Music's article The Hymns of Samuel Francis Smith in The Hymn volume 59 number 2 (Spring 2008) includes an extensive list of 193 hymns (and other texts which might have been sung as hymns) as well as a detailed bibliography. He also acknowledges that there may well be other hymns by Smith that have not been discovered yet.

Smith was also one of the editors of The Psalmist (1843), a hymnal which quickly became widely used in Baptist churches. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dictionary of Hymnology by John Julian still described it as "the most creditable and influential of the American Baptist collections to the present day."

Today's hymn by Smith is far less known and does not seem to have appeared in any American hymnals.  Earlier this year I was working at the First Baptist Church in Needham, MA, and discovered this text in one of their written histories. It was sung there on June 5, 1872 at the dedication service for their new building (which they still occupy). At this time, Smith was the pastor of the Needham church, which was not far from his home in Newton. Somewhat surprisingly, the tune they sang in 1872 was documented, and so the congregation in 2018 sang this hymn on the first Sunday in June to commemorate their building's dedication, as it had been sung in 1872.

Come, O divine Shekinah, come,
With glory fill this new abode;
Come, in our waiting souls there's room!
Display thy pow'r, a present God.

Come to our shrine, a God of love,
Come as a God of love and pow'r;
Refresh thy people from above
As dews refresh the drooping flow'rs.

Come as a spring and fount of grace,
Our temple with thy light adorn,
As crimson rays thy glory trace
The gorgeous rising of the morn.

Come as a dove, with wings of peace,
The sad to cheer, the bruised to heal;
The wounds that sin has made, to ease,
The covenant of our life, to seal.

Dispolay thy pow'r, a present God,
Come, in our waiting souls there's room;
With glory fill this new abode,
Come, O divine Shekinah, come!

Samuel Francis Smith, 1865 (?)
Tune: HOLLEY (L.M.)
George Hews, 1835

Shekinah is not a word many hymn lovers have encountered before. I have seen it in a few contremporary texts, but not those of 150 years ago.

In the recorded history of the Needham church, they believe that Smith wrote this text specifically for their dedication service in 1872. However, it appears in David Music's list of Smith's hymns as having been used in a similar service in Taunton, MA, on October 10, 1865, because their dedication service was published that same year. Was that then the first time it was sung, or did Smith perhaps write it even earlier, for another dedication that hasn't yet been documented? There are probably hundreds of similar hymns still undiscovered, written by authors both famous and unknown for various local occasions around the country.