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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Hymn envisions peace at night, rising of hope C. Michael Hawn, Jan 23, 2012
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Now, on Land and Sea Descending” Samuel Longfellow UM Hymnal, No. 685
Now, on land and sea descending, brings the night its peace profound; let our vesper hymn be blending with the holy calm around. Jubilate! Jubilate! Jubilate! Amen!
The tradition of an evening or vesper hymn is much less prominent than it used to be. Regretfully, many people no longer participate in a brief service that commends us to God’s care as we prepare to retire for the night. Because much of our worship takes place in the morning, references from night to light are much more common in our congregational song.
The evening hymn tradition may be traced to the ancient Greek hymn “Phos Hilaron,” referenced by St. Basil who spoke of it late in the fourth century as an old and anonymous hymn. This lamp-lighting hymn focused on the transition from day to night as candles or lamps were lit.
In stanza one, the night brings “peace profound” and petitions that our singing should “be blending with holy calm around.” In stanza two, the sun is replaced by the “stars of heaven,” “telling still the ancient story [of] their Creator’s changeless love.” Humans take comfort in the predictability of the seasons and the cycle of day to night and night to day—changeless attributes of creation.
In stanza three we leave all of our “wants and burdens . . . to God’s care.” Through “God’s . . . care for all,” we “cease [our] fearing, cease [our] grieving. . . .” In the final stanza, the “eternal stars arise,” evidence that “hope and faith and love rise glorious. . . .” The analogy between the rising stars at night and the rising of “hope and faith and love” is further reflected through the “shining in the Spirit’s skies.” The connections between the peace afforded in the night and the laying down of our burdens on the one hand, and the rising stars and the rising of hope, faith and love on the other, are beautiful images of the Romantic era that bind the natural order of creation with the needs and ideals of humanity.
Samuel Longfellow (1819-1892) was the brother of the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He received his B.A. from Harvard University (1839) and his bachelor of divinity from Harvard Divinity School (1846). He served Unitarian congregations in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.
Longfellow was also active in hymnological circles, editing with Harvard classmate Samuel Johnson A Book of Hymns for Public and Private Devotions (1846) and Hymns of the Spirit (1864). He also compiled Vespers (1859) and A Book of Hymns and Tunes (1860), as well as a biography of his more famous sibling.
Longfellow’s hymns were influenced by the Transcendental philosophy that he encountered at Harvard Divinity School. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) introduced the term “transcendental” into philosophical discourse. Truth resides in an experience that goes beyond a physical and empirical understanding of objects and events, and is realized in the intuition of a person rather than the doctrines of organized religion.
Hymnologist Albert E. Bailey notes that as Longfellow “grew older he became less and less a sectarian, refused to be called a Unitarian, and finally adopted a position that he called theistic but which we should call more exactly Transcendental—that is, eliminating from his teaching all strictly Christian concepts.”
As one would expect from a Unitarian perspective, our hymn lacks Christological images. It appeared in 1859 and was included in the poet’s Vespers. It does not reflect the poet’s later Transcendental philosophy with its frequent references to God and, in the last line of the final stanza, to the “Spirit’s skies.”
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.