In anticipation of our church’s 125th anniversary on February 20, on each of the Sundays leading up to that day we are singing a hymn written in the past 125 years, in 25-year increments (1885-1910, 1910-1935, etc.).
Hymns Marking Our History
Our commemorative hymn this Sunday is “How Great Thou Art”, the text of which was composed by a Swedish pastor, Carl Gustav Boberg (1859-1940), in 1885. He wrote it after having to take shelter from a thunderstorm while walking home from his church. The words of his poem (“O Store Gud” in Swedish) were set to a Swedish folk tune in 1888, and the hymn was published in 1890. A number of translations to other languages appeared in the first half of the 20th century. The translation that our hymnal and virtually all other English-language hymnals use, was composed by a Methodist pastor, Stuart K. Hine, in 1949.
Today’s historical hymn is “God, Our Help and Constant Refuge,” the text of which is a paraphrase of Psalm 46 (“The Lord is our refuge and strength”), and the music of which was written by the British composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Although Howells is now known principally for his Anglican choral music, early in his career he wrote concert music for orchestra and chamber groups. He wrote the hymn tune that we are singing today in 1930, for his four- year-old son, Michael (hence the name of the tune). The tune originally set the text “All My Hope on God is Founded,” a poem by Robert Bridges, and was later used to set the Psalm 46 paraphrase. Tragically, Michael Howells died of polio in 1935, at the age of nine, after which his father turned increasingly to writing sacred music.
Today’s historical hymn is “Hope of the World, O Christ of Great Compassion.” Of the hundreds of hymns submitted in a search for new hymns for the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, this hymn was selected as the winner by the Hymn Society of America. The text is by Georgia Harkness (1891-1974), a Methodist theologian, and the tune is from the Genevan Psalter. Georgia Harkness was the first woman in the U.S. to be appointed a full professor in a theological seminary, and she was a prolific theologian: she wrote 37 books. Two members of our congregation have interesting connections to the hymn: Chuck Forman attended the World Council of Churches meeting in 1954 and remembers singing the hymn for the first time. And Bruce Gordon shares an accomplishment with Georgia Harkness: both wrote books on John Calvin.
Our historical hymn today is “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness,” by James K. Manley (1940–). Jim Manley is a composer, singer, and guitarist, who served for many years as a pastor in the United Church of Christ, before retiring in Claremont, California. A few years before his retirement, he gave up his pastorate, and travelled across the U.S., Canada, and Australia, playing and singing his music.
Our “historical hymn” for today is not particularly historical. We began our historical hymns in 1885, with “How Great Thou Art” and we conclude today with “O Praise the Gracious Power” , which brings us up to 1984. The text of the hymn is by Yale Divinity School Professor Thomas Troeger, and the music by Carol Doran, a church musician and composer Carol Doran, who worked with Professor Troeger when they were both at the Colgate-Rochestert Seminary in Rochester, New York.
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