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Reading the Hymns: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind

May 1st, 2010 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Simply put, this might be the most beautiful hymn in the English language.

It’s still commonly sung by our friends across the Atlantic.  Too bad they had the misfortune of ranking it their second most favorite hymn behind How Great Thou Art.  And while it’s no insult to that fine tune to say that few songs approach “Dear Lord’s” in loveliness, I must point out the suspect nature of that poll–it listed the grating “Shine, Jesus, Shine” as tenth!

But despite the fact it was written by an American poet–the words are John Greenleaf Whittier’s–it has been neglected by evangelicals.  It is included, on the other hand, in both Episcopalian and Presbyterian hymnals (not to mention in a moving sequence in the overly-pretty Atonement).

The poem is worth reading in its entirety.  Whittier, a Quaker, has strong words for those who attempt “by music, incense, vigils drear” to bring heaven down to them, or themselves up to heaven.  While it’s tempting, oh so tempting to read soma as the Greek for body, it was instead a hallucinogenic.  The words that have made it into the hymn stand as the corrective to this bawdy, bacchic spirit that Whittier thinks has even made into the Christianity of his time.  

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

Whittier starts, appropriately enough, with repentance.  But while we might think that the problem is one of our hearts, he points to the mind.  And appropriately so.  The bacchic experience of passion may appear to be a problem of desire, but there is a deeper sense where the notion that someone has “lost their head” better describes the reality.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.

The antidote to bacchanalia–to the sturm und drang–is a “simple trust.”  The Lord calls, and without a word, they follow.  The emphasis here is on speaking:  the Lord is the one who speaks, who calls, and we obediently act in silence.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

Beneath the movement of life is the Sabbath.  Above the busyness of life is the calm where Jesus meets us.  Inasmuch as music and speech depend upon time, they are a part of the created order.  But above and behind creation is the stillness.  In Eliot’s words, the “still point. ” And it is that silence, the silence of eternity, that Jesus shares in and through his love.

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Whittier’s emphasis on stillness and silence is utterly arresting.  Beneath the words and works there is a still voice, a “deep hush” which must still all.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

As evangelicals, we tend to think that passion is what the Lord wants from us.  And sometimes, he does–f0r it is the Lord’s passion for us where we find life.  But peace has it’s own power, and I suspect it is a deeper power yet.  It is a terrible good, in Charles Williams’ words.  In a world marked by movement, disorder, and stirring–stillness, order, and quiet stand out like church bells amidst the clatter of daily life.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

He was not in the earthquake.  He really was not.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.