Saturday, March 15, 2014

Father of Mercies, Day by Day

Praise for the Lord #141

Words: Frederick W. Faber, 1849 (st. 1, alt.); Alice Flowerdew, 1803 (st. 2, alt.); Gilbert Rorison, 1851 (st. 3, alt.)
Music: ELEOS, English folk melody

The lovely little hymn "Father of mercies, day by day" has a very unusual history, and seems to be little known outside of the Churches of Christ. (Click here to listen to a recording made in Great Songs Chapel at Oklahoma Christian University.) It appears in just a handful of hymnals indexed at, most notably Great Songs of the Church, which is probably the source from which it was picked up by other hymnals. It is actually a patchwork of stanzas from two hymns by different authors, the first of which is radically altered from its original intent, and the second of which was altered and added to by a third author even before this adaptation. The first stanza was originally thus:
Mother of mercy, day by day
My love of thee grows more and more;
Thy gifts are strewn upon my way
Like sands upon the great seashore.
When we consider that it was written by Frederick Faber, the great Anglo-Catholic hymnwriter, it is hardly surprising. The stanzas that follow in Faber's original hymn are an apologia for devotion to Mary, which remained a sticking-point within the Oxford Movement. Some enterprising individual, however, turned this first stanza to a hymn of praise to the Father with the stroke of a pen. The plural "mercies" instead of "mercy" may have been suggested by the large number of other hymns that begin with the line "Father of Mercies!" And though the balance of the hymn before us is from another work, written a generation earlier, the sweet, childlike faith so typical of Faber is the perfect way to start off this hymn.

Advertisement from Flowerdew's
Poems on Moral and Religious Subjects, 1803
The remaining stanzas of this pastiche are based on Alice Flowerdew's popular hymn, "Fountain of mercy, God of love". According to Julian's Dictionary Alice Flowerdew was born in 1759 (Stevenson). She may have been the former Alice Ludlow of Norfolk, who married Daniel Flowerdew, a widower, on 22 May 1785. Daniel Flowerdew served as a customs officer in Jamaica for a few years ("1790 Almanac"), where at least one child, Elizabeth, was born to the couple. Josiah Miller, writing in 1869 with information from a living descendant, says that the Flowerdews returned to England prior to Daniel's death in 1801, and that Alice kept a ladies' boarding school in Islington (Miller, 327).

The reality of the situation appears to be a little more complicated. Later authors have tended to assume that Mrs. Flowerdew faced financial difficulties after the death of her husband, but the unnamed editor of Fireside Poetry, a late 19th-century American anthology, was closer to the truth of the situation: "After [Daniel Flowerdew's] return to England he was in such poor circumstances that Mrs. Flowerdew was obliged to keep a school at Islington" (Fireside Poetry, vol. 2, p. 121).

The European Magazine and London Review fills in a missing critical detail, with a report in its obituary column for March-April, 1801: "Lately, in the Rules of the Fleet Prison, Daniel Flowerdew, esq." (vol. 39, p. 319). Readers of Dickens will recognize the Fleet Prison as the debtors' jail where Mr. Pickwick found himself confined. The "rule" of the Fleet Prison was an area just outside the walls where favored prisoners were allowed to rent lodgings, provided they could post bond, pay a regular percentage against their debts, and pay a daily fee to the jailers (Thornbury). Alice Flowerdew's ladies' school in Islington, three miles away, was a means of supporting the family and keeping her husband from the indignity of remaining inside the prison itself. Health conditions at the Fleet Prison and its environs were notoriously poor, of course, and may have hastened his death. Alice Flowerdew's statement in the preface to her 1803 poetry collection takes on an added poignancy in light of these facts:
The Poems which are now presented to the Public Eye, were written at different Periods of Life: some indeed at a very early Age, and others under the severe Pressure of Misfortune, when my Pen has frequently given that Relief which could not be derived from other Employments.
Flowerdew's original hymn was in six stanzas, but was soon redacted "at sundry times and in divers manners" by many different hymnal editors. It first appeared in the 1819 edition of Thomas Cotterill's landmark series A Selection of Psalms and Hymns, with just five stanzas. Several of its later adaptations changed the first line to "Father of mercy, God of love", and one of these versions in particular caught on after being adopted in the influential Hymns Ancient & Modern. It is from the 1st and 5th stanzas of this altered version of the text that the second and third stanzas of our "Father of Mercies" were drawn--and in yet another twist, the 5th stanza was actually a wholesale addition to Flowerdew's hymn by another writer.

The earliest instance of this "Father of mercy" version appears to be in Hymns and Anthems: Adjusted to the Church Services throughout the Christian Year, published in London in 1851, and edited by Gilbert Rorison (1821-1869), a Scottish curate at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Peterhead (Julian, "Rorison"). Rorison's note on "Father of Mercies" in the index of first lines indicates that he both "altered considerably" and "added considerably;" and since the 5th stanza of his adaptation does not bear any discernible relation to Flowerdew's original, I believe he must be given credit for writing what we have as the closing stanza of the modern "Father of Mercies" hymn.

Exactly who combined and arranged these different texts into the form used by many Churches of Christ is not certain, but I agree with Wayne S. Walker that it is most likely the work of Elmer Jorgenson, editor of Great Songs of the Church (Walker). The "old blue book" is the only common thread I can find, from the citations in to the scant appearances of this hymn on the Internet, and Jorgenson is known to have translated and adapted texts as well as arranging and adapting music. As he was gathering materials for his hymnal, Jorgenson must have hit upon the idea of changing Faber's opening stanza to "Father of mercies"; but, considering the subject of the rest of that hymn, he needed material from elsewhere to provide the rest of the stanzas. The Rorison version of Flowerdew's hymn (perhaps acquired from Hymns Ancient & Modern) begins almost identically, with "Father of mercy"; and with a slight rewriting of the opening of the 5th stanza, Jorgenson had a nice little hymn in three stanzas, each beginning with the same phrase.

There was one problem, however, that required a novel solution: Faber's hymn is in Long Meter (each stanza has 4 lines of 8 syllables each), but Flowerdew's hymn is Common Meter (8 syllables, 6 syllables, 8 syllables, 6 syllables). To make them fit, Jorgenson (presumably) stretched out the 2nd and 4th lines of the two stanzas taken from Flowerdew's hymn, as indicated below in italics:


Father of mercies, God of love,
Whose gifts all creatures share,
Thy rolling seasons as they move
Proclaim Thy constant care.

Oh, ne'er may our forgetful hearts
O'erlook Thy bounteous care;
But what our Father's hand imparts
Still own in praise and prayer.


Father of mercies, God of love,
Whose gentle gifts all creatures share,
Thy rolling seasons as they move
Proclaim to all Thy constant care.

Father of mercies, may our hearts
Ne'er overlook Thy bounteous care;
But what our Father's hand imparts
Still own in grateful praise and prayer.

If someone told me that they intended to combine hymn stanzas from three different writers and in two different meters, I would suggest they look for some easier outlet for their creative tendencies. But the alterations to the words of the Flowerdew hymn fit so beautifully, they might have been written that way originally. The addition of the words "gentle" and "grateful" fit the sentiment of this hymn perfectly, and tie these stanzas nicely into Faber's style in the 1st stanza.

Stanza 1:
Father of Mercies, day by day
My love to Thee grows more and more;
Thy gifts are strewn upon my way
Like sands upon the great seashore.

Though "Father of Mercies" was not the original wording of this stanza, it is an eminently appropriate expression, corresponding to Paul's language to the church at Corinth: "Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3). The language "Father of Mercies" recalls the Eastern habit of labeling a man the "father of" something, to indicate the prominence of that characteristic in the person. Jesus called Satan the "father of lies," not only as one who promotes lying, but one who lies "out of his own character" (John 8:44). God is elsewhere called "Father of Lights" (James 1:17), and "Father of Glory" (Ephesians 1:17); together with "Father of Mercies", we have a striking picture of the character of God.

The "mercies" spoken of in 2 Corinthians 1:3 are the Greek οἰκτιρμός (oiktirmos), a somewhat stronger word than the more common ἔλεος (eleos). It is the word used in the odd but literal expression "bowels of mercies" used by the King James Version in Colossians 3:12 (cf. Philippians 2:1). To put it in more understandable (if somewhat uncouth) modern terms, it is a compassion so strong you "feel it in your gut" (Vine). We see a shadow of that kind of compassion in the devotion of parents to children, where the needs of a child can evoke nearly superhuman patience and endurance. This is a defining characteristic of God's nature as revealed in the Psalms, where the Hebrew equivalent (as seen in the usage of οἰκτιρμός in the Septuagint) occurs several times: "But You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Psalm 86:15, cf. 103:8, 145:8, also Joel 2:13). In these passages His mercies are seen specifically in two areas: His "steadfast love" (the beautiful Hebrew word חֶסֶדchesed), is what causes Him gives us so much that we do not deserve; His "slowness to anger" is what spares us from so much that we do!

The abundance of God's blessings is expressed here in a familiar Scriptural hypebole: "Like sands upon the great seashore." God's promises to Abraham included this expression: "I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore" (Gen 22:17). In Genesis 41:49 this simile describes the abundance of grain stored up in Egypt under the wise leadership of Joseph (and the blessing of God!). Psalm 78 uses this phrase in an extensive description of God's care for Israel in the wilderness:
He commanded the skies above
And opened the doors of heaven,
And He rained down on them manna to eat
And gave them the grain of heaven.
Man ate of the bread of the angels;
He sent them food in abundance.
He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens,
And by His power He led out the south wind;
He rained meat on them like dust,
Winged birds like the sand of the seas;
He let them fall in the midst of their camp,
All around their dwellings.
And they ate and were well filled,
For He gave them what they craved.
(Psa 78:23-29)
It is difficult even to begin to count our blessings, but always worthwhile. Today was a fairly ordinary week-day for me, but nonetheless filled with more blessings than I can name. To start with:
  • I woke up.
  • I was under a roof.
  • I was in peace and safety.
  • I had a reasonably good night of sleep.
  • I was able to get out of bed.
  • I had breakfast with hot coffee.
  • I had a hot shower.
  • I had clean clothes to wear.
  • I had some left-over pizza to take for lunch.
  • I had a job to go to.
  • The car started.
This list could be much longer, and that is before I even left my house. I do these things every day, but how often do I think of what blessings they are? Many people do not have a safe shelter, and live in fear of harm every day. Many people do not have sufficient health to sleep soundly, or even to get out of bed in the morning. Many people do not have jobs, or do not make enough money to live on. Too many people do not even have clean water to drink, much less hot water for bathing. Too many people do not have enough food or clothing.

These facts should make us think first, of course, about the need for those of us who are so richly blessed, to do what we can to improve the lot of the ones in need; as John says, "If anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?" (1 John 3:17). Hard on the heels of that thought, however, should be an examination of the claim we make when we sing this hymn: "Day by day, / My love to Thee grows more and more." God blesses us day by day; and though our appreciation and love for Him cannot even begin to approach the magnitude of what He does for us, even in the mundane realm of daily blessings, can we at least say that we are growing in our love for Him? "We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19).

Stanza 2:
Father of Mercies, God of love,
Whose gentle gifts all creatures share,
The rolling seasons as they move
Proclaim to all Thy constant care.

I am happy to be writing on this stanza close to the beginning of spring in North Texas, when we are given a few weeks or at least days of respite between the freezing cold and the blistering heat. There is a hopeful feeling in the air, and though the mockingbird has not yet returned to take over as our local entertainer, this morning I heard the homely call of a red-winged blackbird who seemed optimistic that we have seen the last of our cold weather. (I have a longer memory than that bird, and have not yet put away my winter coat.)

"The rolling seasons as they move" make for variety in life, but we know they are much more; if our planet did not tilt in just such a way to make these changes, not only would the habitable part of the earth be much more limited, but the entire cyclic nature of weather would not exist. There are forms of life that can survive in such a world, certainly, but not the intricate web of plant and animal species that we see in our world as it is. Interestingly, from the earliest verses of Genesis chapter 1 we see the provision for variation in the world God created; beginning with a world "formless and void" (v. 2), He created light, separated it from darkness, and imposed "evening and morning, the first day" (v. 4-5). From the "face of the deep" (v. 1) He separated land and sea (v. 9-10); and how little did we suspect, until the explorations and scientific studies of more recent times, the complicated and necessary relationship between these two domains! Finally, verse 14 tells us that God said, "Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years."

In Psalm 65, David, who as a young shepherd had ample time to admire the handiwork of the Great Architect, extols the wonderful blessings of God through the natural world:
You make the going out of the morning
   and the evening to shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it;
You greatly enrich it;
The river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
For so You have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
Settling its ridges,
Softening it with showers,
And blessing its growth.
You crown the year with Your bounty;
Your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
The hills gird themselves with joy,
The meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
The valleys deck themselves with grain,
They shout and sing together for joy.
(Psa 65:8b-13)
Though in more recent centuries science has begun to explain the ways in which seasons, days, and years govern the processes of this world, it should only add to our wonder at things "too wonderful for us, which we did not know" (Job 42:3).

But to what end should that wonder lead us? In the ages after the Fall, humanity strayed far from the knowledge of God and invented deities to account for these things--but deities they were, nonetheless, at least in our imaginations. Only in more recent times has learning advanced to the point that intelligent, well-educated people will argue that everything comes from nothing. The vaguest notion of a sun-god or sky-spirit held by our pagan ancestors was more reasonable and convincing than such a conceit! They understood at least that Something, or Someone, "Proclaims to all His constant care" through the provisions of nature. Psalm 19 reminds us,
The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
Their line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
(Psalm 19:1-4)
The power of God is obvious through His creation; but Mrs. Flowerdew's hymn also emphasizes the goodness of God demonstrated in the same. The remaining stanzas of the her hymn (remember that the concluding 3rd stanza of the version at hand was actually by another writer) consider in more detail the blessings of God's provision through the natural world. They are well worth reading:
When in the bosom of the earth
The sower hid the grain,
Thy goodness marked its secret birth,
And sent the early rain.
The spring's sweet influence was Thine,
The plants in beauty grew;
Thou gav'st refulgent suns to shine,
And mild refreshing dew.
These various mercies from above
Matured the swelling grain;
A yellow harvest crowns Thy love,
And plenty fills the plain.
Particularly noteworthy is the following pithy reference to God's promise to Noah after the flood, "While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease" (Genesis 8:22).
Seed-time and harvest, Lord, alone
Thou dost on man bestow;
Let him not then forget to own
From whom his blessings flow.
In the revised form of the original 1st stanza, these ideas are summarized more generally: His "gentle gifts" and "constant care" are given to all creatures. When we think of God's care for the rest of His creatures, we naturally turn to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them" (Matthew 6:26a). Of course, the food does not just appear in front of them; they spend most of their day searching, scratching, and pecking, in order to get it. But instead of worrying about tomorrow, they get to work each morning making the most of what God has given for today.

The point of Jesus' words, of course, is this comparison: "Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26b). God provides daily for humanity, even though most of us remain in rebellion against Him. "He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). "Yet He did not leave Himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17). The birds set us a fine example in their work ethic; but notice as well that in the hour before sunrise they take time to lift their voices in song before their busy day begins. It is a sentimental notion, but I cannot help thinking that they give us an example there as well. I believe Alice Flowerdew thought the same; though most hymnals that utilized Flowerdew's hymn in its original form ended after the stanzas given above, her original concluded with this additional thought:
Fountain of Love, our praise is Thine;
To Thee our songs we'll raise,
And all created nature join
In sweet harmonious praise.
No doubt the simple joys of nature were a blessing to this woman who dealt with such hardship and disappointment in life. And though her contributions to this hymn as we have it in our particular version are somewhat truncated, her spirit of humble and faithful gratitude permeates it nonetheless.

Stanza 3:
Father of Mercies, may our hearts
Ne'er overlook Thy bounteous care;
But what our Father's hand imparts
Still own in grateful praise and prayer.

In the closing stanza added to his version of Flowerdew's hymn, Gilbert Rorison summarized some of the themes of the omitted stanzas. His lyric originally read, "O ne'er may our forgetful hearts / O'erlook Thy bounteous care," emphasizing the human tendency to forget the true source of our blessings, and to take them for granted. In my country, unless we are directly involved in food production, we tend to act as though food simply appears automatically on the shelves at a local grocery. But farmers know the truth--there are many steps along the way, any one of which could fail, but usually doesn't. Farmers live all year on faith (and credit), and can take nothing for granted until the crops are harvested and sold. We all need to keep such a close eye on our blessings, and realize our dependency on God's providence.

Instead of neglecting our blessings, this hymn adjured us to "own" them "in grateful praise and prayer." And as in all other things, Jesus set us the example, when "He took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks He broke them, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds" (Matthew 15:36). God created food "to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth" (1 Timothy 4:3), and offering thanks before meals is an excellent custom that is worth continuing.

No matter what "our Father's hand imparts" in this life, of course, it will be mixed with the sin and sadness of a fallen world. But if we will only stop to look at the good things He has provided, we cannot fail to see that His blessings far outweigh our sorrows. There is a lesson for us to learn from a passage in the Book of Lamentations, which is familiar to many of us as a praise song. Its placement in the book is key: it begins the middle third of the middle chapter. In the very midst of an entire book of Scripture devoted to lamentation, we are struck by this sudden burst of praise:
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul,
"Therefore I will hope in Him."
(Lam 3:22-24)
Even in the darkest of times, God's mercies are with us; let us learn to look for them and focus on the good He does for us every day!

About the music:

The tune identified here as ELEOS (Greek for "mercy") is called an "English folk melody" by the editors of Praise for the Lord; Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church identified it simply as a "traditional melody." Searches of melody databases have yielded no further information, except to point out the obvious similarity to the opening phrase of the classic English drawing-room song, "Drink to me only with thine eyes"; the pitches and rhythms are identical for the first six notes. Additionally, the distinctive harmony of the opening two measures of "Father of Mercies"--the bass holding the tonic while the melody and other parts ascend, creating a minor 7th chord--is also found in the earliest part-song arrangement of "Drink to me only with thine eyes".

Adaptation of a popular song into a hymn is not uncommon; the venerable tune to which we sing "O Sacred Head, now wounded" was originally a love song written by Hans Hassler (ironically, it was re-secularized in Simon & Garfunkel's "American Tune"). "Drink to me only with thine eyes" was included in early 19th-century editions of Rippon's Selection of Psalm & Hymn Tunes as the tune PROSPECT, paired with Watts's text "There is a land of pure delight" (Mansfield, 42). The popularity of this melody as a hymn tunes is confirmed by an anonymous editorial in London's Musical World, 1 May 1845, titled "Church Music and Congregational Singing":
What the Church wants is the calling forth of the voice of praise from her lay members. For this end there are no better means than good metrical versions of the Psalms and other portions of Scripture, set to tunes of an impressive character; not the trash which we too often find in favour in our churches, such as Wesley's and Watts's hymns sung to "Rousseau's Dream," and piracies upon "Drink to me only with thine eyes," and other profane airs, which, though pleasing in the concert-room, are out of place in ecclesiastical edifices.
I do not wish to make too much of slim evidence, but a "piracy on 'Drink to me only with thine eyes'" might be just how our hymn tune ELEOS began. "Drink to me only with thine eyes" was adapted by Rippon as a doubled Common Meter tune (Mansfield, 42), and would fit easily with Flowerdew's original "Father of mercies" hymn. Perhaps Jorgensen adapted the melody as well when he altered the hymn to Long Meter.


"1790 Jamaica Almanac." Jamaican Family Search.

"Alice Ludlow." England, Norfolk Bishop's Transcripts, 1685-1941.

Chappell, William. A Collection of National English Airs. London: Chappell, 1840.

"Church music and congregational singing." Musical World 20:17-18 (1 May 1845), p. 204-205.

"Elizabeth Flowerdew." Jamaica Church of England Parish Register Transcripts, 1664-1880.

Fireside Poetry. New York: American News Co., 1880s?

Flowerdew, Alice. Poems on Moral and Religious Subjects. London: Stower, 1803.
N.B. This is the first edition, and does not include "Father of mercy". I have not found an online copy of the 1811 edition in which this hymn first appeared.

"Fountain of Mercy." Hymnary.org

Hymns and Anthems: Adjusted to the Church Services throughout the Christian Year. London: Hope & Co., 1851.

Julian, John. "Fountain of mercy, God of love." Dictionary of Hymnology, ed. John Julian, (2nd ed. rev, 1907), 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1957.

Julian, John. "Rorison, Gilbert." Dictionary of Hymnology, ed. John Julian, (2nd ed. rev, 1907), 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1957.

Mansfield, Orlando. "Rippon's tunes." The Baptist Quarterly 8:1 (January 1936), p. 36-43.

"Merciful, Mercy." Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words.

Miller, Josiah. Singers and Songs of the Church, 2nd edition. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869.

"Monthly obituary." European Magazine and London Review, vol. 39 (1801), April, p. 318-319.

Stevenson, W. R. "Flowerdew, Alice." Dictionary of Hymnology, ed. John Julian, (2nd ed. rev, 1907), 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1957.

Thornbury, Walter. "Fleet Prison." Old and New London, vol. 2 (1878), pp. 404-416.

Walker, Wayne S. "Father of Mercies." Hymn of the Day.

1 comment:

  1. “Power for Today” had an article repeated from 1998 in which this hymn was featured. Google sent me to Great Songs Chapel, one of my favorite sources, to listen to it. Google also suggested your blog, and I read it word for word. What a wonderful and masterful search you did. Thank you so very much! I enjoyed your personal comments as well.