Summer series 4
Saint Matthias’ Church, 16th July 2006
Dear Lord and Father of mankind
“Behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.” 1 Kings 19:11-12
John Greenleaf Whittier, the writer of Dear Lord and Father of mankind is a fascinating man—a man of peace but also a man of action; a man of profound Christian faith but also a man with great tolerance and charity towards others.
Born in 1807, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in the house built by his first American ancestor, two hundred years previously. His father was a farmer, who while not the richest, was certainly far from the poorest and was well respected in his community. Whittier himself writes, “The farm was not a very profitable one; it was burdened with debt and we had no spare money; but with strict economy we lived comfortably and respectably”.
The family were Quakers, or, more correctly, members of the Society of Friends and Whittier’s memories are of a fairly austere upbringing, “I had a brother and two sisters. Our home was somewhat lonely, half hidden in oak woods, with no house in sight, and we had few companions of our age, and few occasions of recreation. Our school was only for twelve weeks in a year— in the depth of winter, and half a mile distant. At an early age I was set at work on the farm, and doing errands for my mother, who, in addition to her ordinary house duties, was busy in spinning and weaving the linen and woollen cloth needed in the family”.
Whittier’s writings reminded me of something I had forgotten—there were some Christians who refused to use the pagan names for the days of the week that we use, what we call “Sundays”, Whittier’s family called “Firstdays”.
He developed a great love for reading when he wasn’t working on the farm and would walk miles to borrow books from neighbouring families. The influential moment came when he was fourteen and his first schoolmaster lent him a copy of the poems of Robbie Burns “it had a lasting influence upon me I began to make rhymes myself, and to imagine stories and adventures. In fact I lived a sort of dual life, and in a world of fancy, as well as in the world of plain matter-of-fact about me.”
Whittier wrote poems he sent to the local newspaper and when one was published the editor called at their farm to urge that young John be sent to school. There was no money to pay for education, but Whittier learned how to make ladies’ shoes and slippers from a farmhand and earned enough to pay for six months’ schooling. The next year he did a bit of teaching himself and the following year he wrote for a paper in Boston
Returning to the farm each spring, he was surprised by an invitation to take charge of the Hartford “Review,” where he worked for two years before being called home by the illness of his father, who died soon after. He took charge of the farm, and worked hard to “make both ends meet.”
As a member of the Society of Friends, he had been educated to regard slavery as a great evil and he became very active in the anti-slavery campaign which was not popular. He was attacked by a mob in one place, he kept George Thompson, whose life was hunted for, concealed in the lonely farm-house for two weeks. He was threatened with violence and in 1838, when at the age of 31, he took charge of the paper the Pennsylvania Freeman, his office was ransacked and burned by a mob soon after, but he continued his work until his health failed.
Whittier’s work had expanded to the extent that the farm was sold and his mother, aunt and youngest sister, moved to a town. Whittier’s antislavery views made his work hard to sell and publishers shied away from him for fear of a backlash.
Nevertheless he carried on, eventually joining the staff of a Washington paper. He realized the need for political action and was one of the founders of the Liberty Party—the forerunner of the present Republican Party.
By the 1860s his work was becoming popular and he was able to live in relative comfort and growing respectability, including becoming a member of the Board of Harvard. Yet he continued throughout his life to remain politically active, describing himself as “deeply interested in questions which concern the welfare and honour of the country”
When we sing the words of Dear Lord and Father of mankind, we need to do so mindful that these are the words from a poem by a man who wasn’t detached from the world but who knew every reality and much about its foolish ways. We think of him labouring long hours on the farm; we think of him standing up for what he believed in, even when it meant threats and actual violence; we think of him going through the ashes of his things after his office was destroyed; we think of him holding on to his belief in human freedom and his trust in God when publishers didn’t want to know him and when money was hard to earn.
Whittier knew his Bible well and draws on the story of Elijah when he writes about the earthquake, wind, and fire. But violent experiences weren’t just poetry for Whittier, they were part of his life, and it’s through the violence that he pray he will hear the “still small voice of calm”.
The words of Dear Lord and Father of mankind were written in 1872, when Whittier was 65, they were verse from a long poem called The Brewing of Soma., a mocking of the excesses of some churches which Whittier regarded as being similar to pagans under the influence of hallucinogenic substances.
The music comes from Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, best known for his setting to music the words of William Blake’s Jerusalem. Parry’s background in Eton and Oxford is a complete contrast with the humble farm work of Whittier. The tune was for the aria Long since in Egypt’s pleasant land part of Parry’s oratorio, Judith. In 1924 Dr George Gilbert Stocks, director of music at Repton School, set it to Dear Lord and Father of mankind, and although the tune requires the repeating of the last line of each verse, it has become the normal tune for the hymn, replacing the tune written by Frederick Maker in the 1880s.
The tune captures a sense of what Whittier tries to convey in his hymn, furious activity and deep calm, the sense of God’s presence as it is found in Scripture, “Behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”
It was in the still small voice that God spoke. Amidst the upheaval and the war and the fury and the violence Whittier saw in the years of his life, God speaks to him in a still small voice. May we be blessed in finding that voice.