Friday, May 23, 2008

Hymns for Memorial Day

We're at our cottage in Lakeside, Ohio, for the holiday week-end. Although I always load the car with more books and magazines than I'll ever read (because I'm supposed to be cleaning and preparing for the summer), I scan the cottage bookcase for neglected items. My Lakeside shelves are a bit different than those at home, and one book I have here is The Methodist Hymnal (c.1964). I picked it out of a free box at a book sale about 5 years ago. The Methodists of the 18th and 19th centuries had a huge influence through revivals and the Awakenings on all American denominations. At least until the "contemporary" music took over for Sunday worship, the hymnody of the Methodists bound us all together. The early Lutherans in America absorbed many English hymns into their tradition as they lost their European roots, particularly those written by the Wesleys. This hymnal has about 80 hymns by Charles Wesley and 8 by John Wesley.

Most hymnals have special indices and appendices to aid the musical director or pastor in planning themes. This one has a category "Memorial Day," Although nothing for July 4 or even Christmas or baptism. Since this is Memorial Day week-end (the "real" day is May 30 and there was a bill introduced about 9 years ago to restore it to that date since so many Americans have no idea what the holiday is about) I'll list them. I haven't gone through every tune and verse, but these hymns are rousing and unspecific. I think they could be sung in any country for any war dead.

Eternal Father, strong to save

Father eternal, Ruler of creation

For the might of thine arm

God of grace and God of glory

God of our father

God, the Omnipotent

Judge eternal, throned in splendor

Lord, while for all mankind we pray

Mine eyes have seen the glory

My country, 'tis of thee

Not alone for might empire

Now praise we great and famous men

O God of earth and altar

O Lord, our fathers oft have told

These things shall be

This is my song

Turn back, O man

I don't know how many hymns G K Chesterton (1874-1936) composed--he was a British critic, poet and a novelist--but I think I've read that "O God of Earth and Altar" was a response to the terrible carnage of WWI, where 5-10,000 men could be lost in one battle that won nothing. Don't quote me, because I can't find a source. He became a Roman Catholic late in life.

O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry;
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide;
Take not thy thunder from us,
But Take away our pride.

Hymns that include no theology or Christology, no atonement, no resurrection, no gospel, can easily be sung by almost any group or nation or faith because they focus on the general condition of all mankind--faltering rulers, love of money, general nastiness, and pride.

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