Monday, October 27, 2014

Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer

Praise for the Lord #144

Words: Love Maria (Whitcomb) Willis, 1859; alt. Samuel Longfellow, 1864
Music: ST. SYLVESTER, John B. Dykes, 1862

The original poem from which this hymn was fashioned was written by Love Maria (Whitcomb) Willis (1824-1908), an accomplished poet and editor from Hancock, New Hampshire. She was named after her mother, Love Foster, daughter of a prominent Unitarian minister (Hayward, 1001). Her father, Henry Whitcomb, and her uncle John Whitcomb were among the leading men of the community, and the families were very close. Henry and John married on the same day, and started their families in what must be the most impressive duplex ever (Hayward, 1002). But fortunate as they were in so many things, tragedy was no stranger to the Whitcomb households. By the time Maria wrote this hymn, she had lost one of her two siblings and three of her four first cousins (all of whom had grown up under the same roof) to early and unexpected deaths. The heaviest blow of all, however, was the death of her father in an accident while handling a horse. He died in 1831, at the age of 44, when Love Maria was just six years old. In the words of Hayward, who attributes his account to Love M. Willis herself, "The cloud so suddenly gathered never quite left the household" (Hayward, 1004ff).

Perhaps it was this early and frequent loss of loved ones that turned Love Maria Whitcomb towards the Spiritualist movement; or perhaps it was simply the current of the times, fueled further in her case by the liberal theology of her upbringing. (How ironic that so many in that generation began by turning away from the inspiration of  the Living Word, and ended up seeking for messages from the dead!)  Love M. Whitcomb wrote extensively for the Spiritualist magazine Tiffany's Monthly (edited by the abolitionist lawyer Joel Tiffany), including essays on such diverse topics as aesthetics, theology, logic, philosophy, and psychology. (Several of her articles and poems may be read in the 3rd volume of the magazine, available through Google Books.) She was later the editor of the children's department in Banner of Light, a Spiritualist magazine in Boston (Hull, back matter), and co-edited the New York department of The Present Age, a Chicago-based Spiritualist journal (The Present Age11 December 1869, p. 2).

Among the acquaintances that Maria Love Whitcomb made in the Spiritualist movement was Frederick D.H. Willis, a childhood friend of the famed Alcott sisters, and believed by some to have been the inspiration for the character Theodore "Laurie" Laurence in the book Little Women. Frederick Willis had promising prospects as a minister, but his growing involvement in Spiritualism led to his expulsion from Harvard Divinity School in 1857 (Morris, 27).  He would spend the next several years re-educating himself for a career in medicine, graduating from the New York Medical College in 1865 (Directory of Alumni, 1902, 62).

It was during the throes of this event that Maria Love Whitcomb first published the poem simply titled "Prayer," the first line of which read, "Father, hear the prayer I offer" (Tiffany's monthly, vol. 3 (1857), p. 359). The same volume contained a defense of Frederick Willis, and a critique Harvard's action, by the prominent Unitarian minister and anti-slavery activist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, (p. 283-285). And in 1858, just a year into Frederick Willis's change of plans, Maria Love married him (New Hampshire Marriage Records).

I am not suggesting that Mr. Willis's situation had anything to do with the writing of the poem, but perhaps it does reflect a state of mind in the author that is worth considering. Though I certainly do not share her Spiritualist or Unitarian beliefs, Love Maria showed a strength of character and a faith in God that seemed to grow stronger as the challenges mounted against her. I also respect her determination to stand by the man she loved when everything was against him and his prospects were at their lowest. It is a grown-up, mature faith that understands that the greater the trial, the greater the opportunity to glorify God by standing the test in a Christ-like manner.

Love Maria Whitcomb's poem first appeared as a hymn in Psalms of Life, 4th ed., published in 1857 by John Stowell Adams, a Boston Spiritualist publisher. The changes were minor, limited almost entirely to the recasting of the singular pronouns to plural, to make the hymn more appropriate to congregational singing. The version we sing today, however, benefited from passing under the critical eye of one of the great American poets of the age. Mrs. Willis's hymn next appeared in the 1860 Book of Hymns and Tunes, edited by Samuel Longfellow. (This preceded its oft-cited appearance in the Hymns of the Spirit, co-edited by Samuel Longfellow and the clergyman Samuel Johnson in 1864, and settles the question of whose editorial hand was involved). The current form of the hymn was established in this publication, with the exception of the final stanza beginning "Let our path be bright or dreary." The revision by Longfellow (at least it is reasonably assumed it was he) was a masterful work of editing, polishing the best parts of Willis's original and smoothing out its imperfections with many happy turns of phrase. According to Julian (v.1, 367), the aforementioned closing stanza was added anonymously in William G. Horder's Congregational Hymns (London, 1884). It is present in the influential English Hymnal of 1906 (no. 385), and likely gained a great deal of currency from that source, even back in its native country.

Stanza 1:
Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Nor for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength, that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.

Mrs. Willis's original stanza was the following:

Father, hear the prayer I offer;
For sweet peace I do not cry,
But for grace that I may ever
Live my life courageously.

The most obvious change, perhaps, is harmonizing the endings of the 2nd and 4th lines by changing "cry" to "be", a more natural rhyme (especially when spoken instead of read) with "courageously". But the most significant change, I think, is altering Willis's "cry for peace" to a "prayer for ease." We would sympathize with a distressed soul's cry for peace, even though she says that is not what her prayer intends; but Longfellow's wording digs deeper into our consciences, scolding those of us who take for granted the "ease" we already have, and yet pray for more. Peace we are promised (John 14:27), but "ease" is comparative. Jesus said, "My yoke is easy, and My burden is light"--compared to the burden of sin and despair (Matthew 11:30)--but if we are seeking the "easy" road in life for its own sake, we will end in destruction (Matthew 7:13). It was the rich fool who said, "Soul, take your ease" (Luke 12:19); it was the holy apostles who left their quiet livelihoods to be persecuted and martyred.

Longfellow's choice of "strength" instead of the original "grace" suits the overall character of the hymn, and reinforces a recurring theme. Paul wished God's grace upon the recipients of his letters in almost every opening address, and there is no question that we are in need of it every day; but there are times when a sterner message needs to be added as well. Perhaps because of his upbringing in Tarsus, the capital of a Roman province, Paul was familiar with the language of athletic contests and of warfare, pursuits in which the Romans and Greeks excelled. His exhortation in Ephesians 6:10 could be the words of a coach or a general, seeking to whip up the fighting spirit of his men before the decisive hour: "Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might."

In his exuberance, Paul uses three different terms for "strength" in the original Greek. "Be strong" is a verb form (Strong's G1743) of the noun δυναμόω (dynamisStrong's G1412), from which we get the English words "dynamic" and "dynamite". It is an active, energetic quality that brings about change. The "strength" is κράτος (kratosStrong's G2904), having to do with authority; it is the stem of the words we use to describe types of government ("democracy," for example, in which authority derives from the "demos", the people). In Scripture it is used almost exclusively to describe the authority of God. The "might" at the end of the verse is ἰσχύς (ischysStrong's G2479), derived from a form of the verb ἔχω (echoStrong's G2192), meaning "to hold"--in this case, to maintain something or to hold fast (Blue Letter Bible Eph. 6:11)

Fortunately it is not our own strength upon which we depend! The coach or general may have to instill a false sense of power and ability in his charges by dint of his own charisma; but through a similar grouping of these "strength" expressions in Ephesians 1:19, Paul shows us the true scale of the power upon which we can call: "the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might." My own strength is not much to speak of--I am all to aware of my limitations. But if my strength is augmented by such a reserve of power, and is constantly resupplied, who knows what God might do through me?

It is in this light that Longfellow's emphasis on "strength" coincides so well with M. Love Willis's wish to live life "courageously." When we were children, we thrilled to hear the stories of the Bible heroes--examples of physical courage, such as the warriors David and Jonathan, and also the examples of moral courage, such as Esther and Ruth. We knew we were never likely to stand alone in a winner-take-all duel against a giant, or to go before an emperor to plead for the life of a people; but those heroes gave us a standard against which to measure our aspirations.

In Ephesians 6:12, however, Paul tells us that we may yet have giants to fight, and emperors to stare down! "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places." We may not be called upon for the kind of thrilling heroics we read about as children, but ask a godly parent if it takes strength and courage to labor, year after year, to bring up a child "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). Ask the addict struggling against drugs, or porn, or alcohol, if it takes strength and courage to set a daily course that keeps clear of those temptations. Ask the young person at school, or in a new job, if it takes strength and courage to live a "transformed" life in Christ when surrounded by pressure to "be conformed" to this world (Romans 12:2). Ask the caregiver who watches over an invalid in declining health, day after day, if it takes strength and courage to be the support that loved one needs. There are heroic deeds enough to be done; let us live courageously!

The Longfellow revision kept the following stanza, but some hymnals omitted it over the years, and I have not seen it in the hymnals used among Churches of Christ, at least in this country:

Not forever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be,
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.

Maria Love Willis's original was:

Not within the fresh green pastures,
Will I ask that I may lie,
But the steep and rugged pathway,
That I tread rejoicingly.

This and the following stanza are of a piece, thematically, so it is a shame that one of them is generally omitted. But at least we are left with the following:

Stanza 2:
Not forever by still waters
Would we idly, quiet stay;
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.

Mrs. Willis's original was:

Not beside the clear, still waters,
Do I pray thou wilt me guide,
But I'd smite the rocky pillar,
Whence the living spring may glide.

Longfellow's work here, simplifying and smoothing the text, is like a master jeweler bringing out the facets of a diamond--for here begins Love Maria Willis's masterstroke, the juxtaposition of two very familiar images from the Hebrew Testament. The 23rd Psalm is obviously one of the best known passage of all the Scriptures, even among unbelievers. Generation after generation has looked to it for comfort. Jesus' self-identified role as the "Good Shepherd" (John 10:11) lends even greater relevance to this description of a shepherd's tender care for his flock. The word-pictures themselves are so pleasant; who would not want to lie down for a moment in that green pasture, or walk beside those still waters?

And so it is all the more striking when Willis deliberately turns from these peaceful scenes and embraces the hardships of another great scene of Hebrew history, the Exodus. Moses was likewise a shepherd of his people (Isaiah 63:11), but was forced to lead them across deserts instead of green pastures, and had to "smite the living fountains" from the bare rock of the wilderness (Exodus 17:6). The Exodus experience certainly does not have the same immediate appeal to us as Psalm 23; but if we look further into the 23rd Psalm, we find that here, too, is a "valley of the shadow of death." The ancient shepherds did not keep their sheep in just one pasture, but led them from place to place depending on the season, sometimes crossing difficult terrain. We need the times of peaceful refreshment that God sends, but we cannot stay there forever. The simple fact is, there is no easy express lane to glory. The closest thing to an express highway in life is the one Jesus mentioned in Matthew 7:13, but we will find the toll too high at the end! We must take that narrow and difficult path instead if we would reach the destination we seek.

The following two stanzas from Maria Love Willis's original poem were omitted from Longfellow's version:

If I go where flowers of summer
Still the ragged path adorn,
Let me weave them into garlands,
Tho' each one should bear a thorn.

Not the glorious sunlight only
Will I crave, oh God, of Thee,
But to see Thy fiery pillar
In the darkness guiding me.

Longfellow may have omitted the first of these simply because it deviates somewhat from the imagery already invoked in the hymn; weaving garlands (superfluous objects in a wilderness wandering!) from thorn-bearing flowers does not fit well with the overall themes of strength and courage in the Christian journey. The second of these omitted stanzas reinforces the Exodus theme, however, and one can imagine that Longfellow might have tweaked this into another fine hymn stanza. The point is well taken, that it was only at night that the Hebrews could see the full glory of the fiery pillar leading them; and it is often in the darker times of life that we learn to appreciate the brilliance of the Light of the World.

Stanza 3:
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our Guide;
Through endeavor, failure, danger,
Father, be Thou at our side.

Love M. Willis's original was:

Be my strength in every weakness;
In my doubt be Thou my guide;
Through each peril, through each danger,
Draw me nearer to Thy side

This was the end of Maria Love Willis's original poem, and is the end of the hymn in Longfellow's adaptation. The change of "my doubt" to "wanderings" was wise, as the introduction of doubt at this late stage is a complication the original poem does not go on to address. Longfellow instead ends on a note of resolve, and recalls again the theme of "wilderness wandering" that underlies the hymn. His choice of "endeavor" in the third line may have just been intended to smooth over the break created by two parallel phrases within the original line ("Through each peril / Through each danger"). But it also introduces an interesting note of variety--asking God to be at our side through the endeavor itself, when success is still in question, as well as in failure, when defeat is already known. It reminds me of my favorite line from Rudyard Kipling's poem, "If": "If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same; . . ." Our successes in this life are rarely as glorious and as lasting, and our defeats are rarely as utterly disastrous, as we believe they are at those particular moments.

The appeal, then, is for God's presence, assistance, and protection in every phase of life, from the good and quiet times to the difficult and chaotic. Paul spoke to this in his famous saying, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13). As with any Scripture, we must not take this single verse out of the context of its original passage, or out of the larger context of the totality of New Testament teaching. I have seen this verse on inspirational posters with sports themes, and other such associations, that sometimes push it beyond the bounds of good sense. Paul surely meant that he could "do all things" that were within God's will for him, and that were necessary to serving his Lord. God's will for you on the football field surely extends no further than to do your best (Colossians 3:23) and to conduct yourself in a Christlike manner (Colossians 4:5).

But in its proper context, Paul's assurance reminds us that we are not alone in the spiritual warfare of this life. God allows us to face some exceedingly large challenges, but He also promises us an exceedingly large helping of strength to overcome them. Paul assured the church of Ephesus of this fact in these beautiful words:
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19).
If it is something God wills you to do, He will provide you the strength to do it.

Stanza 4:
Let our path be bright or dreary,
Storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls in hope unweary
Make Thy work our ceaseless prayer.

This final stanza, as found in most hymnals among the Churches of Christ in the U.S., became attached to this hymn considerably later--Julian (v. 1, 367) found it no earlier than 1884, in Horder's Congregational Hymns). Here is yet another stanza that has been added in some versions of this hymn:

Ours to sow the seed in sorrow,
Thine to bid it spring and grow;
And the golden days of autumn
Will a precious harvest show.

This was actually the closing stanza in the earliest instance of "Father, hear the prayer we offer" in a hymnal associated with the Churches of Christ (at least in the U.S.), Elmer Jorgenson's original 1921 edition of Great Songs of the Church. In the classic "Great Songs no. 2" in 1937, Jorgenson switched instead to the stanza beginning "Let our path be bright or dreary," which has been the usual  closing stanza in our usage since that time.

Life gives everyone both bright and dreary, storm and sunshine, and though some certainly receive more of one than the other, on the balance we will all have these times of trial in different ways. The question is not whether we will experience the dreary or stormy times, but how we will respond to them. Paul's thorn in the flesh caused him to realize a truth about his own dependence on God: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). The devil may have thought he would beat Paul down with suffering and persecution; but the more he suffered, the more Paul trusted in God's power and not his own, and the greater a tool he became in God's hands!

Part of Paul's secret, of course, was that he possessed "hope unweary." Any kind of hope is better than no hope at all, and even the faintest glimmer of hope will cause people to bear up under difficult circumstances. But the hope of a Christian is more than just wishful thinking; we are "born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Peter 1:3). It is a "living hope" in a living Lord, and that confident hope spurs us on to greater efforts. The writer of Hebrews tells us,
And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises (Hebrews 6:11-12).
The works to which this hope drives us are not works "unto salvation," but rather, because of salvation. "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10). His work for us should be our "ceaseless prayer," and when we focus on pleasing God through accomplishing the work He has set before us, we will find the journey through the hard times passes much more easily.

About the music: 

The hymn page for "Father, hear the prayer we offer" at shows that this hymn has been paired with many tunes over the years. The tune with which the hymn is generally known among Churches of Christ in the U.S. is John B. Dykes's ST. SYLVESTER (1862). (Click here to listen to a recording of the Edmond Church of Christ (Edmond, Oklahoma) singing this hymn on the television program In Search of the Lord's Way.) The first instance I have found of this hymn paired with this tune is in The New Christian Hymn and Tune Book, an 1882 publication by Fillmore Brothers of Cincinnati. Though the Fillmores would end up on the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ side of the Restoration Movement after the turn of the century, their songs and songbooks were always very popular among the more conservative Churches of Christ. J.H. Fillmore still included "Father, hear the prayer we offer" with the ST. SYLVESTER tune in his 1920 Hymns for Today, and it is a safe guess that this was the source of Jorgenson's usage in Great Songs of the Church. Fillmore, however, used the added closing stanza beginning "Let our path be bright or dreary"; it is unknown why Jorgenson went with a different non-original stanza at first ("Ours to sow the seed in sorrow"), only to change back to what the Fillmores had done all along.

The tune ST. SYLVESTER was written for The Congregational Hymn- and Tune-Book (London: Wm. Mackenzie, 1862), edited by Richard Robert Chope, and first used with Edward Caswall's hymn "Days and moments quickly flying" (Fowler, 323). It is an extremely simple tune, never exceeding the range of a 5th (F up to C), and moving by step throughout except for just three skips of a 3rd (end of the first line, C to A, and the beginning of the third line, F-A-C). The first half of each line is sung on a single repeated pitch, giving the melody a chant-like quality. By comparison, the harmony has more variety, especially in the tenor part which generally drives the harmonic motion forward. It is a good example of why Dykes has received criticism as a tunesmith, and yet has remained quite popular: the melody alone is not much to speak of, but for congregations that sing in parts (and have the voices to cover all of them) Dykes's chromatic harmonies are very enjoyable.


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Fowler, J.T., ed. Life and letters of John Bacchus Dykes. London: John Murray, 1897.

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Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "A statement of facts." Tiffany's monthly, vol. 3, 1857, p. 283-285.

Hull, Moses. The question settled: a comparison of Biblical and modern Spiritualism. Boston: W. White & Co., 1869.

Hymns of the Spirit, ed. Samuel Longfellow & Samuel Johnson. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1864.

Julian, John. A dictionary of hymnology, 2 vols. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1957.

Morris, Dee. Boston in the golden age of Spiritualism: séances, mediums and immortality. Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2014.

New York Medical College. Directory of the Alumni. 1902.

The present age, 11 December 1869. (Kalamazoo, Mich.).

Psalms of Life, ed. John S. Adams, 4th ed. Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1857.

Tiffany's monthly, vol. 3, 1857. (New York, N.Y.)

"Willis, Frederick L. H." New Hampshire, Marriage Records, 1637-1947.