Comments: vigilance in the cause of truth

To the tune, Aberystwyth. Not so uncommon in Canada. Harold

Posted by Harold Macdonald at Friday, 11 June 2004 at 6:30pm BST

Well do I remember singing James Russell Lowell's hymn, "Once to Every Man and Nation," and being inspired by it during the civil rights struggle here in the U.S. during the 1960's. We sang it to the stirring Welsh tune, "Ebenezer" or "Ton-y-botel." I can't imagine singing it to that other Welsh tune, "Aberystwyth, as our Canadian correspondent says, since the meter doesn't quite fit.

James Russell Lowell was an important literary figure of nineteenth century America and an ardent anti-slavery campaigner. However, he wrote the hymn in question, not during the Civil War, but much earlier in 1845 as a protest against the U.S. war on Mexico. Much later, Lowell was American ambassador to England.

The hymn has been omitted from the latest (1982) edition of the Episcopal hymnal, perhaps because it seemed difficult to fix the male language of Lowell's poem and because the idea of a "new Messiah" or of progress in understanding truth was theologically unacceptable. I miss the hymn.

Posted by James Lodwick at Saturday, 12 June 2004 at 7:05pm BST

I remember singing it as a kid in the 60s. I miss it, too

Posted by Jay Vos at Saturday, 12 June 2004 at 9:38pm BST

The first editor of what is now _The Atlantic Monthly_, James Russell Lowell was indeed strongly opposed to slavery, and much of his poetry was written to rally U.S. anti-slavery sentiment. One of his poems commemorates Col. Robert G. Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first regiment of free black men to serve in the American Civil War. This poem, however, is less well known than his grandnephew Robert Lowell's poem on similar themes, "For the Union Dead."

Posted by Charlotte Pressler at Sunday, 13 June 2004 at 1:29am BST

the hymn was in the 1940 hymnal in the usa, but dropped from the 1982 revision for, as i recall, not being "theologically correct" i.e., one always has another opportunity to choose. perhaps someone out there will have more specific/accurate information about this

Posted by susanna b matthews at Thursday, 17 June 2004 at 4:22pm BST

The Companion to the 1940 Hymnal states that Lowell wrote the poem (called "The Present Crisis") in 1845 "...as a protest against the war with Mexico... He also feared that annexation in the southwest would increase the extent of slavholding territory."

The poem originally began with a verse not included in the hymn:

When a deed is done for freedom, though the broad earth's aching breast / Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west, / And the slave, where'er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb / To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime / of a century burst full-blossomed on the thorny stem of time.

(Block that metaphor...)

Posted by Kirk Hollingsworth at Monday, 21 June 2004 at 12:11pm BST

Correction to Harold Macdonald: The hymn is sung to "Ebenezer," not Aberystwyth. It is #587 in the new Canadian hymn book "Common Praise."

Posted by Robin Walker at Wednesday, 23 June 2004 at 5:42pm BST