This article was found in the December 1950 copy of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church. It was written by R. A. Newman
We have at least eight hymns in our selection by John Greenleaf Whittier, three of which I cannot remember ever having heard sung in any Church that I have had the privilege of worshipping in. The favourite of all denominations is, I think, Dear Lord and Father of mankind, part of his poem: The Brewing Soma.
Whittier was born in Massachusetts, America, in 1807, and started life as a farm boy and shoemaker. A Quaker by religion, and a strong advocate in his day for the abolition of slavery. He was a great simple-hearted Christian, becoming one of America's greatest poets. He died in 1892. He also gave us the following lovely hymns:
Another American hymn writer was Ray Palmer, who began life as a clerk in a dry-goods store. Afterwards he entered Phillips Academy, and from thence to Yale College where he graduated in 1830, but was in poor health, and took a teaching post to provide the means of life. During this period he wrote the well-known hymn My faith looks up to Thee. The author says: "I gave form to what I felt, by writing, with little effort, these stanzas. I recollect I wrote them with very tender emotion, ending the last line with tears," that being: O bear me safe above - A ransomed soul.
The hymn has been translated into several languages, including Chinese and Arabic. He translated a number of Latin hymns and became a leading American Congregational Minister. He died in 1887 at the ripe age of 79, uttering, a few hours before the end, the last verse of his own great hymn: Jesus, these eyes have never seen That radiant form of Thine.
There are several other American authors in our Hymnary, but space is limited so we must pass on.
It is generally accepted that the greatest of all hymns is the Te Deum Laudamus. It is of Latin origin, and supposed to have been written about the end of the fourth century by the Bishop of Remesiana, in Dacia, but some scholars think it is even of a much earlier date.
No other hymn of praise has been, by universal consent, set apart as the supreme expression of the gratitude of the human heart. It is the most catholic of hymns, and sung on all great occasions, such as Coronation Services, Consecration Service of Bishops, Election of a Pope, Canonisation of a Saint, General Thanksgiving, and at great National Services. It was sung after Agincourt, after Waterloo, and many other Military and Naval victories. It continues to be sung, by all the Western nations at least, not only on great occasions but also in our ordinary Divine Services.
We can, I think, be justified in turning our thoughts to the Christian festival of Christmas, the season of Advent. [Editor's note: this article was written for December 1950, hence the Christmas theme.] We shall soon be singing the old familiar Christmas hymns, and, by the way, giving and receiving presents. Here is a story told by H. A. L. Jefferson, in his book on Christian Hymns recently published.
Dr. John Byrom of Manchester asked his little daughter, Dolly, what she would like for a Christmas present, and knowing her father's fondness for writing verse, she said: "Please write me a poem", no doubt hoping for good things as well. On Christmas morning, 1749, little Dolly came down for breakfast, eagerly anticipating, as children always do, the gifts awaiting her. As she sat down to breakfast on this happy morning she found a slip of paper on her plate, and the heading was: Christmas Day, for Dolly. It was a poem, Christians awake, salute the happy morn, well known to all of us.
When the season was over the piece of paper was cast on one side, but chanced to fall into the hands of John Wainwright, organist of Manchester Parish Church, who set the words to the tune now familiar to all of is. Wainwright got his choir boys together to practice the hymn, and the following Christmas Eve quietly took them to the residence of the Byroms, marshalled them round the door, and they sang the hymn to the great delight of the author. Thus was born one of out most popular hymns.
Dr. Byrom was a great friend of both Charles and John Wesley, and it has been suggested that he may have had a hand, with Charles Wesley, in compiling another of our Christmas hymns: Hark! the herald Angels sing.
Any who are interested in Christian hymns, I can, with confidence, recommend them to Jefferson's "Hymns in Christian Worship", published by the Rockcliff Press, quite recently, price 17/6. A suitable present for anyone at this season of the year. Or you can get it from the Town Library. He quotes some amusing odd verses, for example, from a Scottish hymn descriptive of Jonah's plight: -
Ah me! this is an awesome place,
Without e'er coal or candle,
Nothing but fishes tripe to eat,
And fishes tripe to handle.
The author is not stated, but it is probably of the 17th century. A book compiled by a Baptist divine in 1691 contains these choice lines: -
Repentance like a bucket is
To pump the water out;
For leaky is our ship, alas,
Which makes us look about.
Crudity in hymns, he says, is not confined to a remote past. It was about 1890 that the following found expression: -
Good Elijah went to heaven
In a chariot of fire;
Bright and warm to Glory driven,
Fiery horses drew him higher.
Up God's deathless way to Glory,
Where God's holy serpahs burn.
Enoch travelled by translation
With no ticket to return.
The precepts of John Wesley, given for the guidance of his Methodist choirs, may be of special interest to our own Church choir, and possibly to members of the congregation.
I think I might have added: Be regular in attendance at Choir Practice, and also at Divine Service to lead in the Worship of Song.
Well, Mr. Editor, we are nearing the end of the year, and it is just as suitable time to end this series of Christian Hymnody, and thus give someone else a chance to ring in the changes; which reminds me of a little girl who was once faced with a fierce Bull Terrier. In her agony she cried out: "O God, if you really do care about little girls, now is your chance."
I would like to thank those readers of "Progress" who have expressed their appreciation for these, I fear, rather sketchy notes for thirteen months. I will not say, Good-bye, but having run 81 laps of life's race, we can say with Whittier: -
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
So with Jeremiah Eames Rankin I will say: "God be with you till we meet again".