Yesterday morning, I spent an hour with friend and colleague Chip Roush planning one of the services for SUUSI, the Southeast UU Summer Institute (where fellow hymn geeks can geek out with me about hymns). We looked at one whose words were fantastic but whose tune just won’t work for this casual, folky, funky crowd. I said to him “maybe we can find someone to make it a little less German.”
He laughed, realizing that the tune was most assuredly a German hymn tune, as so many post-Reformation hymn tunes are. And while I love good German hymn tunes (see: my Lutheran DNA), sometimes the German-ness of a tune obscures a lyric’s import.
Such was my experience this morning singing this hymn. Truth be told, the title never grabbed me – either I bypassed it because it was too militant about faith or I realized two lines in this wouldn’t be good for an Independence Day service.
But I tucked in this morning – Bastille Day, by the way – way to go, storming the castle, boys – anyway, I tucked in this morning and felt the German-ness of the hymn take center stage. I wasn’t really paying attention at first, wondering why we have a hymn talking about ‘liberty’ and ‘loyalty’ and noticing with concern ‘monarch and creed’…
And then I really started hearing the lyrics.
Faith of the larger liberty, source of the light expanding,
law of the church that is to be, old bondage notwithstanding:
faith of the free! By thee we live —
by all thou givest and shalt give our loyalty commanding.
Heroes of faith in every age, far-seeing, self-denying,
wrought an increasing heritage, monarch and creed defying.
Faith of the free! In thy dear name
the costly heritage we claim: their living and their dying.
Faith for the people everywhere, whatever their oppression,
of all who make the world more fair, living their faith’s confession:
faith of the free! Whate’er our plight,
thy law, thy liberty, thy light shall be our blest possession.
Seriously. Look at those words, by Unitarian minister and hymnodist Vincent Silliman (for whom a major UU songwriting contest is named). Lyrics that remind us the costs of a free faith. Lyrics that remind us of all who have died and all who may die in the fight for a just and compassionate world. Lyrics that stand up to oppression and remind us there is a cost. Lyrics that inspire our commitment to our principles.
In a very German sort of way.
In this case, I mean strong, forthright, heart-stirring, commanding. And this is a good thing. We have a propensity to be more lovely in our tune choices – as I recall, I’ve gone on about this whole thing before, that the tune must match the lyric and often we lean toward lovely when we need strong. I am grateful both to Silliman for writing these strong lyrics to this strong tune, and to the hymnal commission for keeping it this way.
I didn’t expect to be surprised by this hymn, but I am. And I’m grateful. After several days of cynicism and frustration, it’s nice to have a YES again.
The pic is of the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth, Maine, where Silliman served for over 25 years.