This is a complex lyric – three verses of a complex poem, “Stanzas on Freedom,” written by James Russell Lowell (one of the 19th century American Fireside Poets). It’s not even a terribly good poem – technically, his writing was good, but as Margaret Fuller wrote, “”his verse is stereotyped; his thought sounds no depth, and posterity will not remember him.”
And it’s a complex topic – slavery. What’s worse is that Lowell’s anti-slavery position came largely because his wife wore him down; many of his thoughts about race make my skin crawl; I can’t even bear to repeat it here – if you’re curious, check out his Wikipedia page, under “Beliefs.”
The truth is, I don’t want to dig any deeper into this history and make a justification about why this should or shouldn’t be in our hymnal, or why it should or shouldn’t matter what a person’s belief is and we should honor the art, and what are the lines we draw between sacred and profane. Largely, because, I don’t know if I have the knowledge or the life experience or even the right to say if this is an appropriate and helpful hymn. And I do not want to mess it up.
What I do know is that it’s not a terribly familiar tune, nor is it as intuitive as I’d hoped, so I really struggled to sing it and pay attention to the lyrics all at once. And if I couldn’t manage it, how can our congregations? These are not casual lyrics – there’s something really complex, possibly meaningful and possibly terrible, about them.
All whose boast it is that we come of forebears brave and free,
if there breathe on earth a slave, are we truly free and brave?
If we do not feel the chain when it works another’s pain,
are we not base slaves indeed, slaves unwilling to be freed?
Is true freedom but to break fetters for our own dear sake,
and with leathern hearts forget we owe humankind a debt?
No, true freedom is to share all the chains that others wear,
and, with heart and hand, to be earnest to make others free.
They are slaves who fear to speak for the fallen and the weak;
they are slaves who will not choose hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
rather than in silence shrink from the truth they needs must think.
They are slaves who dare not be in the right with two or three.
Oof. Opinions, comments, history, and perspectives welcome.
Photo courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14595373847/
Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/historyprogresso09sand/historyprogresso09sand#page/n489/mode/1up,
No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42034844
Familiar tune to me …. have sung it for decades …. and the lyrics have always impressed me. I find myself recalling them whenever I think on the theme of entitlement and freedom.
As a UU descended from enslaved Africans, Iike the way this hymn reminds UUs not to be too prideful about the freedoms some of us enjoy while others are not free. I like that it starts on a challenging note. I think it’s really important for a faith tradition that prides itself on it’s historical connections with the New England elite to be reminded that we are not better than other people and that it is imperative that we continuously work for everyone’s freedom.
I am originally from a country that was still a British colony at the time of my birth. Every time I come across this hymn, I remember singing “Rule Britannia” in school assemblies even though we had been independent from England for a few years by then and more than 90% our country’s people were descendants of slaves brought there by the British. Even as a child I found being asked to sing that song galling, especially the first two lines: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves!/ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”. Well, bully for them. They maintained their vaunted freedom by enslaving other peoples and colonizing other lands– yay! For me Lowell’s words are an antidote to that song.
That said, I don’t particularly love the third verse, because it positions enslaved people as vastly inferior people to whom we would never want to be compared. Still, I give it a slight pass because of when it was written. I’m not convinced that many White UUs’ thinking about race goes all that much beyond the paternalism and noblesse oblige that was typical of 19th-century abolitionists. Might as well acknowledge it so we can do better than that.
To me, the fact that Lowell wrote this challenge to fight for everyone’s freedom yet his views on race were problematic makes this a very UU hymn. As much as we’d like to believe North American UU history on race was all abolition, WWII anti-fascist activism, and civil rights movement martyrdom, there is plenty of overt racism in there too. We’d do well to remember that.
Hello Christine, I’m part of a Dismantling White Supremacy book discussion group (we’re all white) that’s leading a UU Sunday service on Aug. 22, 2021 – in a couple weeks, and I wonder if you’d give us permission to quote from your post to introduce this hymn, singing verses 1 and 2 only. My thoughts about choosing this hymn were very similar to what you wrote about not being prideful and thinking as UU’s we’re better than everybody else, and cringing at the white saviorism in the third verse.
I noticed that your post was just a couple months ago, so I have some hope you’ll be able to get back to me. (If not, I can just say something like I just said above.) Thanks!