Saturday, January 10, 2015

Rise Up O Men of God -- William Pierson Merrill

Without knowing this story, someone might glibly dismiss him and his effort as an example of male chauvinism. He does seem to leave the female population on the sidelines – but why? William Pierson Merrill, despite how it might have looked, was indeed pitching “Rise Up O Men of God” at the masculine gender as he pondered an issue he wanted to address in 1911. He must have thought there was a pressing need as he penned the words, but how would we know that if all we had was the text he authored? Who would you think of if you wanted to capture some mental imagery of men serving God? Do some missionaries come to mind, or, closer to home, how about workers in a soup kitchen (like those shown here)?  

William Merrill’s call to action in 1911 might have been interpreted by some as an aggressive, chest-beating battle-cry—since it was directed at men. But, anyone who knew him probably should have known this minister was an advocate of an entirely different agenda. He’d been a pastor (minister) for over 20 years, including the previous 15 in a Chicago area Presbyterian church, from where he’d been trying to spur men to be more active in the church. He was a noted pacifist, indeed the first president of the Church Peace Union, in an era when the war drums were beginning to beat louder prior to the planet’s first global conflict – World War I. Perhaps those years’ atmosphere helped feed Merrill’s outlook, his great desire to motivate men to God’s work, and particularly the brotherhood movement within Presbyterianism, to complement more robustly the work Christian women were pursuing. An editor nudged Merrill to compose a hymn to further this cause, and while aboard a ship on Lake Michigan a magazine article extolling strong men in the church caught his eye, and the rest, as they say, is history. William had written the song before the ship docked. He called upon men to prepare and take part in a different battle than much of the world was forecasting. Nevertheless, the exclamation marks punctuating his words belie any tranquility his professional demeanor dictated, instead showing the urgency of this service call he felt compelled to make. 1911 was also a transition year for Merrill, when he left Chicago for New York City and the Brick Presbyterian Church, where he ministered actively for the next 27 years. Could “Rise Up …” also have been Merrill’s parting message for his Chicago hearers?  If so, it was a message not meant exclusively for Chicago’s environment.

Merrill must have seen much in Pennsylvania where he started in 1890, in Illinois where he was inspired to compose this message for his fellow men, and probably later in New York. The words he wrote apply universally, prompting devout believers to address social ills through sacrifice, a strategy necessary in any American city, and throughout the world too. Maybe it was part of Merrill’s pacifist message, that church work that ministered to hurting people was a stronger antidote for conflict than bullets. Is there still conflict today, somewhere on planet earth? Someone says our inner cities are combat zones, with poverty, crime, substance abuse, and other maladies rampant therein. Am I hearing what William Merrill is saying…do you?

See more information on the song discussed above in The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; and in Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990. 

See story here also:

See biography of composer here:

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