Sunday, November 10, 2013

Faith of Our Fathers

Praise for the Lord #136

Words: Frederick W. Faber, 1849
Music: ST. CATHERINE, Henri F. Hemy, 1864

The page for "Faith of our fathers", which tracks the percentage of indexed hymnals in which this hymn appeared, reveals an unusual historical fact--it was included in relatively few hymnals during its first 50 years of existence, then rose sharply in popularity during the 20th century. Why was it a "sleeper" for half a century, only later to become so popular? It was probably as simple as the eventual omission of one stanza from the original:

Faith of our fathers! Mary's prayers
Shall win our country back to thee;
And through the truth that comes from God
England indeed shall then be free.
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We shall be true to thee till death!

This is quite a surprise to many non-Catholics, but not to those already familiar with the author. Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) began within the Church of England as an Evangelical Calvinist, but his years at Oxford brought him into contact with John Henry Newman and others of the "Tractarians" or "Oxford Movement" (Gilley). During an era of growing scholarship on the Middle Ages and Renaissance, these individuals became convinced that the revitalization of the Church of England depended on reconnecting to its pre-Reformation roots, with the result of drawing closer to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Over several years, Faber gradually came to agreement with this view, and when Newman openly sought fellowship with the Roman Church in 1845, Faber quickly followed. His best known preaching work was at the Brompton Oratory in London (Gilley).

The effect of the Tractarians on English hymnody was profound; in addition to writers of original works, such as Faber, Newman ("Lead kindly light"), and John Keble ("Sun of my soul"), it led to greater interest in the hymns of past ages, resulting in verse translations by scholars such as John Mason Neale ("O come, O come, Emmanuel"). Faber himself was a gifted writer with a wide acquaintance of the best talent of his day, claiming William Wordsworth as a personal friend.Though he was an influential preacher and theologian, at heart he was a man of letters and given to the fine arts. He had written some fairly popular secular verse in his younger days, and in the final years of his life turned his hand to congregational hymns for the English Catholics. In the preface to his first major collection, Jesus and Mary (1849), he praised the effect of the Olney Hymns of William Cowper and John Newton, citing their "unadorned simplicity" that so effectively reached people of every class and level of education (xii-xiii). Besides "Faith of our fathers," Faber's most popular hymn is "There's a wideness in God's mercy", followed by several others that are still in many hymnals, such as "My God, how wonderful Thou art" and "O come and mourn with me a while."

But how did such an overtly pro-Catholic hymn as "Faith of our fathers" come into so many Protestant hymnals? The 1878 Methodist Hymnal appears to have been the conduit by which this happened, by the simple expedient of omitting the stanza referring to "Mary's prayers." This is also the first source I have found that pairs the text with its familiar ST. CATHERINE tune; prior to 1878, and even sometimes afterward, it was printed either without music or with a variety of other tunes. During the 20th century, when the forces of theological liberalism and secular humanism rose up to challenge the traditional Christian underpinnings of the West, the "faith of our fathers" came to mean Christianity in general, and Faber's hymn became an anthem for Protestants as well. And with the violent religious persecution that has characterized the beginning of the 21st century, Faber's call to "be true to thee till death" has taken on an even more poignant meaning, far beyond its original context.

Stanza 1:
Faith of our fathers! living still
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword:
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene'er we hear that glorious word:
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We shall be true to thee till death!

"Dungeon, fire, and sword" no doubt meant to Faber the persecution of Catholics under the Protestant English; in fact he began a multi-volume martyrology on that subject (Gilley). Protestants might have in mind the scenes of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, where the roles are reversed. Suffice to say that blood was freely shed by both sides; unnatural alliances of religious and political authority have always brought shame upon the kingdom "not of this world" (John 18:36). But Faber meant to inspire us to zeal, not finger-pointing; and if we look back to earlier eras when conflict was without, not within, the walls of Christendom, there are good examples aplenty. The apostles themselves give us inspiration enough--James the brother of John was executed by Herod, the first of them to die (Acts 12), and longstanding tradition ascribes a violent death to all the rest except for John. Paul wrote of his fellows,
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake . . . To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things (1 Corinthians 4:9-13).
Looking into the early centuries after the apostles, we find persecutions that should have broken the infant church, but did not. Those with strong stomachs are invited to read Eusebius's Church History, which devotes books 7 and 8 to the ruthless persecution of the Christians by the emperor Diocletian. Eusebius, of course, was sympathetic to the cause of Christ, and some modern historians have accused him of exaggeration. But the pagan historian Tacitus gives an account of similarly gruesome treatment of Christians by the emperor Nero in book 15, section 44 of his Annals of Rome; and despite his opinion of Christianity as a "mischievous superstition," even the stern old Roman historian sounds a note of sympathy for their suffering. As a further example we have the very words of Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bythinia and Pontus (on the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey) in the early 2nd century. In a letter to the emperor Trajan, asking for clarification of the policy toward Christians, he states the following:
In the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed.
Pliny comes across as a remarkably indifferent executioner (the "banality of evil?") who was more annoyed than impassioned in his persecution. He even granted the accused the opportunity to clear their names by offering worship to the emperor and cursing the name of Christ. He seems genuinely baffled that some persisted in their faith.

What was it that drove these people to give their lives? People will sometimes go to extreme lengths to save their lives, their families, and their property; but in this case people gave up all these things for something their enemies could not even understand. It was "the faith." The apostles made their dangerous and sometimes fatal travels for the purpose of "strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith" (Acts 14:22). It was the daily business of Christians, as Paul told the church in Philippi: "Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel" (Philippians 1:27).

And when division, doubt, and persecution came, they were to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). When the book of Hebrews was written, the author could still say, "In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood" (Hebrews 12:4). (N.B. Contending for the faith might extend to shedding your blood, not someone else's!) But some of that generation, and many of the generations following, would have the privilege of laying down their lives for the Savior who laid down His life for us.

Do "our hearts beat high with joy" as theirs did, "whene'er we hear that glorious word?" I imagine the early Christians must have been something like the resistance fighters in Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451, treasuring up their store of knowledge, carefully committing it to memory and passing it on. How greatly one would prize just the sight of one of the inspired scrolls written by Paul's hand! And how many dangerous scrapes did the Scriptures pass through along the way? Looking at later centuries, the work of Wycliffe comes to mind. I have had the privilege of viewing an early 15th-century copy of Wycliffe's New Testament at the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University. It was sobering to think that the person who copied that manuscript, and the person who owned it, were breaking the law and risking their lives--all for the sake of reading the Bible.

JPEG - 17.8 kb
Hawa Abdallah in a photo taken by 
Sudanese authorities during her 
detention. Originally from the
Sudanese Media Center,
reproduced at
The same stories can be heard today. Human Rights Watch, which does not seem to be an organization with a pro-Christian bias, provides the following reports:
  • June 2013: In Eritrea Pentecostals were jailed for holding Bible studies, and their Bibles were confiscated.
  • April 2013: In Uzbekistan Christians were jailed for "illegal religious teaching" and possessing Bibles.
  • April 2012: In Mali a Bible school was looted and Bibles were burned by militia groups.
  • May 2011: In Sudan, Hawa Abdallah, a local Christian, was jailed for the capital crime of "Christianizing" while working at a UN-sponsored refugee camp.
  • April 2011: In Turkmenistan some Christian groups have been raided by police and jailed; Bibles and other study materials have been confiscated, and the participants have been pressured to sign agreements to discontinue meeting.
  • February 2008: In China religious activities are required to be approved by the government, and participants in illegal Bible study groups can face jail and fines.
A few things to note about this list: Yes, many of these governments are equally oppressive to other faiths. And yes, persecution is sometimes perpetrated by Christians against other faiths. But above all I want to point out that this was just a selection of reports, from the last five years, that specifically mention Bibles. Human Rights Watch typically posts around a hundred reports a year of persecution of Christians.

This point is so easy to make it is almost painful: There are Christians in this world today who risk fines, imprisonment, even death, just to study the Bible. And there are also Christians in this world, living in nations that guarantee their religious liberties, who cannot be bothered. Some of us cannot be bothered to get up an hour earlier to attend Bible classes on Sunday morning. Some of us cannot be bothered to give up a night of sports or entertainment to attend a Bible study on a weeknight. Some of us cannot be bothered even to crack open a Bible in between Sundays, though we have multiple copies in our homes and probably even on our phones. We could do so much more, and yet often do so little. I say this to my own shame first; let the reader judge whether he or she fits this description as well.

Stanza 2:
Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free:
How sweet would be their children's fate
If they, like them, could die for Thee!
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We shall be true to thee till death!

In the context in which Faber wrote there was far less likelihood of such overt physical persecution; and though many Christians in this world do face questions of life and death, many of us do not. What should we do, who are blessed with religious freedom? How should we live out the message of the martyrs? First, we can speak out and tell the truth about the persecution of Christianity in our time. I could complain about the secularization of Western culture or the rise of political correctness, both of which have done their part to create a foggy gray morality built on false moral equivalencies, afraid to speak out with moral certainty on any topic. But I think more responsibility can be laid at our own doors--or rather at our cable boxes or satellite dishes, the real portals to our homes. Too many of us are just too busy with our own foolishness, to be concerned about what is happening on the other side of the world to people we are never likely to know. But if we who have the freedom to do so will not seek the truth, and tell the truth, who will?

Not that we need to become vengeful watchdogs; on the contrary, our example from Scripture is to work for positive change. Even under the frequently hostile rule of Rome, the early Christians were so commanded by Paul: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way" (1Timothy 2:1-2). Paul asked as well, "Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word" (Colossians 4:3). We can and should support our brothers in sisters in other countries through financial and legal help when we are able. But even when we cannot to something that tangible, we should pray that God's providence will move the hearts of their rulers toward mercy and freedom.

We should also pray that they will remain "in heart and conscience free." There was a debate in the early church, as recounted by Eusebius, that is hard for us to imagine in the free nations of today: what should be the attitude of the church toward Christians who renounced the faith under threat of death? To even face that question supposes a situation so far from our experience as to seem fantastic; yet there are Christians today who face serious temptation to turn back from Christ's way for that very reason. Paul's letters give us the most insight into the interactions of the early Christian community, and one of the things that knit them together was prayer for one another's faithfulness.
I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf (Romans 15:30).
You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many (2 Corinthians 1:11).
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints . . . (Ephesians 1:16-18).
I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance . . . (Philippians 1:19).
. . . Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Ephesians 6:18).
It is part of my personal prayers, for our brothers and sisters living under intolerant regimes, that God will bless them with the peace and freedom that we enjoy in my nation; and also, that God will help us in this nation to have the courage and faithfulness with which these persecuted brothers and sisters bear witness to the faith. One can live in physical bondage, yet with the "heart and conscience free," and likewise one can be free in every outward, physical sense, but enslaved to sin and sloth (Romans 6:6). God help us to "live as people who are free" (1 Peter 2:16), regardless of our outer circumstances!

Faber's thought in the 3rd-4th lines, "How sweet would be their children's fate / If they, like them, could die for thee!," is somewhat disturbing on its surface. Christianity does not call us to sacrifice our physical lives for its advancement. There was only one death required; "He did this once for all when He offered up himself" (Hebrews 7:27). But when that "struggle against sin" reaches the point of "shedding your blood" (Hebrews 12:4), as it sometimes can, we are assured that, "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints (Psalm 116:15). We should not seek physical confrontation, suffering, or death, but when the world demands it as the price of faithfulness, we should follow the example of the apostles, who "rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name" (Act 5:41).

Stanza 3:    
Faith of our fathers! we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife:
And preach thee, too, as love knows how,
By kindly words and virtuous life:
Faith of our fathers! Holy faith!
We shall be true to thee till death!

In contrast to the preceding stanza's focus on dying for the faith, the final stanza tells us how to live for the faith. Peter had an interesting history with this subject, and by inspiration left some of the most profound advice concerning it. He had been ready to fight for Jesus in Gethsemane (John 18:10), but later that night when he was faced with the idle accusations of a servant girl, he was unable to stand his ground (Matthew 26:69-71). Back then, it was easier for him to face dying for Jesus than living for Him. But when he wrote his first epistle, he had long been doing the latter, and was equally prepared to do the former.

His advice, as always, is practical and direct: "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:12). What is the "day of visitation?" The expression describes an inspection of one's situation by a higher authority. This could be either good or bad; it could expose one's misconduct and bring punishment, or it could call attention to one's needs and bring relief (Edwards). Whether Peter speaks of a day of God's visitation within the normal course of His providence in this world, or of the great Day of Judgment at the end of time, is not completely clear. What is obvious, however, is the effect that faithful, patient Christian living will have on those in the world--it will cause some, at least, to glorify God. Whether it is a momentary realization of God’s goodness, or a life-changing commitment, it is a step in the right direction and one for which a Christian would gladly be the motivation.

To do this, Peter says, we must "be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people" (1 Peter 2:13-15). This runs so counter to human nature that it deserves repeated emphasis. When we see corruption in places of authority, we want to fight; but Peter says our first duty is to be subject to those flawed institutions. Even under systems of government that allow us to influence the selection of leaders, and that protect the freedom of the people to speak out against them, Christians are called upon to be respectful and compliant. How can we do this? Peter tells us,
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to Him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:21-23).
 When we face persecution, of whatever sort, we are to follow our Example and "render no one evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone" (1 Thessalonians 5:15). A Christlike love for "both friend and foe," reflecting His "kindly deeds and virtuous life," is a faith worth defending!

About the music:

The page on this tune notes that it was first published in Crown of Jesus Music (London, 1864). This was the first Catholic hymnal to gain widespread acceptance in England, and continued in use for many decades (Muir, 131). It is assumed that the editor, Henri Frederick Hemy (1818-1888), is the composer. The earliest pairing I have found of the tune with this text is in the Hymnal of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York: Nelson & Phillips, 1878).

Hemy was a colorful figure, engaged in many facets of the field of music. He was the son of a German military bandsman and music teacher who emigrated to England to enter the service of the Duke of Buccleuch. (Hence, no doubt, the variable spelling, "Henry" and "Henri," that one encounters between various sources.) The family went to Australia in the 1850s, but Henry soon returned home to Newcastle where he spent the majority of his career. He was pianist to Lord Ravensworth, a member of the Theatre Royal orchestra, had his own professional band, and published numerous secular songs and piano works in the light "salon music" style. He also taught at the Ushaw College, and in 1858 published a popular piano method called the Royal Modern Tutor for the Pianoforte (Searle 26). A convert to Roman Catholicism, Hemy was organist at St. Andrew's Church in Newcastle, and published several hymnal collections for Catholic use (Canterbury Dictionary).

Musically there is little to say about this tune; it is a straightforward parallel period with a couplet refrain. The earnest simplicity of its style is a nice match to the text; a more martial strain, such as the music of "Onward, Christian soldiers" or "God of grace, and God of glory" would be out of character given the personal and reflective nature of Faber's text. There is a gentle strength in simple things, that is well captured in this match of tune and text.


Edwards, D.S. “Visitation.” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1913. Accessed via Blue Letter Bible.

Faber, Frederick W. Jesus and Mary: or, Catholic Hymns. London: James Burns, 1849.

Gilley, Sheridan. "Faber, Frederick William (1814–1863)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

"Hemy, Henri Friedrich." Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology

Muir, Thomas. "Catholic Church Music in England: the 1950s." Renewal and Resistance: Catholic Church Music from the 1850s to Vatican II. Bern: Peter Lang, 2010.

Pliny the Younger. Letter to Emperor Trajan regarding Christians. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University.

Searle, Peter. Thomas M. M. Hemy


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