File this under Hymns that Make You Go ‘Huh.’
Sometimes these things begin with the ‘huh’, sometimes they begin on a joyful note and then somehow turn. I opened the hymnal and smiled because I love this one. As regular readers know, I love hymn tunes by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and this one is particularly and simultaneously joyful and regal. It is well crafted too, with a third line that revels in the release of the alleluias.
I also like the lyrics in our hymnal – they are, in part, how I understand my theistic humanism (on days when I describe my theology like that). The saints – the exemplars and pioneers of the present and the past – should be recognized, honored, and praised. And thank all that is holy that they were here, they were strong ‘in the well-fought fight” and they inspire us in our fights. Amen, amen, amen.
And so I sang this rousing hymn while waiting for the coffee, a bit more enthusiastically than other hymns I’ve sung, grateful for this section of the hymnal being timed for right now, on the eve of a week than starts with a celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. and ends with the Women’s March, and features in the middle the inauguration of someone whose words and actions call us to resist, that call us to remember more than ever the exemplars of our past and be the exemplars of our present.
As I sang, I thought, I really love this hymn….
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name most holy be forever blest. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou wast their rock, their shelter, and their might;
their strength and solace in the well-fought fight;
thou, in the darkness deep their one true light. Alleluia! Alleluia!
O blest communion of the saints divine!
We live in struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!
And when the strife is fierce, the conflict long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph-song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia! Alleluia!
So why the turn?
Well, as I am wont to do, I check out some of the background and history – where did this song come from, why did they write it, what was the original use of the tune and what was the original lyric. These things intrigue me, and as I’ve reflected on before, they matter.
And so, I was a bit surprised to find that our four verses are part of a much longer, eleven-stanza piece, that (a) makes it abundantly clear that the “thy” and “thee” is Jesus (and his partners in divinity, the Father and the Holy Ghost)… and (b) is in fact careful to single out the Apostles, the Evangelists, the Martyrs, and the Soldiers, each with their own verses, all part of the Saints that this Anglican song sings praises for.
And that preposition is important – it’s not praises to, as we might see it in our truncated (and edited, of course) version. It’s praises to the Big Three for their existence. It’s not so humanist as our version is, by any stretch. The original is a processional, a calling in of the ancestors, as it were. The way ours is revised, it’s more a recessional – a get out there and fight the good fight song. In many ways, it’s a different song – a different intent, with a number of different lyrics (and the adaption is not noted in the hymnal, by the way).
And so the “huh”, as is often the case, is about whether this was appropriate for us to do, when is it appropriate to do so, and how do we honor original intent when it doesn’t fit our theologies. Do we lose beloved songs? Are we okay in making these dramatic shifts in some instances even as we rail against the same in others? I know that folk music has a time-honored tradition of changing/adding lyrics, but this isn’t a folk song. I’m not sure what the line is, where the line is, and what it says about us that we cling to old hymns that in some cases still really move us, as long as we can make the lyrics work for us.
I don’t know any of the answers to the above – hence my “huh” – and in the midst of it, I still know that as we sing it today, and especially this week, it is inspiring and glorious, even with all the questions it raises. And maybe that’s the metaphor – we can question a thing and still love it. We can love a thing and still want it to be better.
(Postscript: I chose this great photo of religious leaders in North Carolina, including the Reverend William Barber, because they are our present exemplars and pioneers. I am grateful for their witness.)
I stumbled on your blog while looking for the UU lyrics to this hymn because I was at a Christian memorial service where this was sung. It’s one of my favorites.
I think it’s fine for us to use traditional Protestant hymn tunes since we come out of Protestantism. You could say that we are still the far edge of Protestantism, protesting not only the church or the trinity, but questioning the notion of divinity itself and being open not to having answers. Indeed, I think an argument could be made that it’s much less problematic for us to re-envision these songs than those from different cultures since we are tied directly to this tradition.
I admit that my viewpoint could be prejudiced because I love these tunes and am not a fan newer “relevant” rock mega-churchy hymns. And I am sick unto death of Spirit of Life (ducks) ;-).
Working from bottom to top, my minister in Dallas won’t have Spirit of Life sung when he’s in the pulpit, because he disagrees with the notion that the spirit is not already within us. The history of hymns crisscrosses lyrics and tunes. No denomination “owns” a tune. Sing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of The House of the Rising Sun and rethink how it sounds. Sing “Spring Has Now Unwrapped the Flowers” to the tune of Good King Wenceslas.
The hymn is an eschatological vision which is expressed almost entirely in terms of triumphal British imperialism, with the saints taken up to heaven in a sort of military victory parade, and god as an omnipotent monarch. As a Christian and Marxist humanist, and English too, I find it deeply disturbing and utterly out of keeping with any genuinely Christian or humanist view of the world. It pictures sainthood almost entirely in masculinist, militaristic terms. Much more an expression of a complacent English nationalist view of the world than a truly Christian meditation. We should be trying to outgrow the language of empire if we want to face the world in a realistic and compassionate way.