Sunday, August 7, 2016

How Sweet How Heavenly -- Joseph Swain

This English poet must have really valued the ‘family’ of which he was part. Indeed, perhaps he was so moved by the camaraderie, that he described it as sweet and heavenly (“How Sweet, How Heavenly”), as he turned a corner in his life’s purpose. Joseph Swain might be viewed with poignancy, because of what would ensue just a few years after he wrote this hymn about brotherhood (he died just four years later, at age 35). But, at the time, this 31-year old must have felt anything but angst in the atmosphere in which he and his fellow believers shared life. Was it because it was something he had missed for so long, which accentuated its sweetness for him? How would one picture something that had characteristics that Swain described? Perhaps it would be like seeing family members embrace (not unlike this 1789 self-portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigée-Lebrun).   

Would it be too much of a stretch to suggest that Joseph Swain’s early life and eventual transformation had their fingerprints all over this fellow’s heart when he put pen to paper in 1792? He was an orphan from early childhood, so that may have spoken to him as he sought relationships in the empty family environment where he found himself. He was converted to Christianity at age 21, and by 1792, some 10 years later, had begun his ministry in a London district church at age 31. His three decades without blood relatives evidently didn’t mean his heart was cold – probably anything but. His poetry had become his calling card over the previous decade, and this continued when he crafted the five verses about sweet and heavenly sights. He’d just begun his public ministry in the London church, so perhaps he wanted to remind himself and his hearers what struck him most in their exercise of faith together. This minister-poet-hymnist, and former orphan, thought a lot about love. He uses the word five times in four of the verses, so one can imagine what a Joseph Swain message from the pulpit might have sounded like. The people to whom he spoke were undeniably part of his being, and part of each other’s being. Love wasn’t an isolated or one-way street. It was sensing one other (vv.1-2), experiencing union or bond (vv. 4-5). In Swain’s mind, someone else’s heart and eye were his, too (v. 2).

Picture-perfect? Swain was most likely not a naïve, rose-colored glasses-wearing minister. He evidently knew what envy, scorn, and pride (v. 3) looked like, or he would not have been able to notice their absence. Have you ever been part of a group that always functioned ideally? Hopefully, you’ve been part of one where at least occasionally the sweet and heavenly have been evident. Joseph either saw it or wanted to promote it. He probably needed it, given his background. Don’t we all?

Biography of composer here:
Some biography here also:
See the site here for brief biography of composer:
See this site for all five original verses:

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