Saturday, February 11, 2017

O Master Let Me Walk with Thee -- Washington Gladden

This minister never let himself, nor his hearers, be comfortable. Washington Gladden saw too much in the American culture of the post-Civil War era that troubled his conscience, and so he pleaded “O Master Let Me Walk with Thee” while he endeavored to make his faith relevant, including in Massachusetts where he was (see picture) when he composed these words. He was what sociologists/psychologists today would characterize as type-A – activist. His conscience-stricken approach evidently came with a cost, for many of his peers found his message too consistently upsetting. Understanding what was going on in his own heart, versus what he saw and heard among his fellow believers and others in the larger secular setting about him, helps us contextualize this particular episode’s resulting poetry. Social justice-seekers are not content trying to gently coax their hearers; Gladden’s original words were more like dynamite, though they were trimmed for wider general consumption.

Washington Gladden had been a newspaperman in his adult life before he became a minister, and perhaps it was the investigative journalist in him that compelled his role as a social crusader and liberal Christian leader. His activist nature was not limited to church debates, but extended to battling political corruption and helping settle industrial strikes, as well as racism issues. One episode apparently drew heavy criticism from his own congregation, as he condemned a donation from the Rockefellers that was intended for missionary work, labeling it as unacceptable because of the donor’s reputation for running a corporate monopoly. It was apparently during one of many incidents like this one in which the 43-year old Gladden sat alone to pray, to ‘vent his spleen’ even, as did many of the minor prophets in their day (similar to perhaps Amos, known also as a social crusader). It was also during his time in Massachusetts when he began to campaign for workers’ rights among the various industries, so “O Master…” may be seen in this context, perhaps. Two of the most compelling verses of the hymn show Washington’s angst and his reaction to his opponents, but they were eventually excised when the poem was set to music. He compared his critics to ‘taunting Pharisee (s)’ and complained of their ‘dullness’; Gladden obviously did not shrink from this clash. Instead, he showed that he was human, and as so many of us do when we are the objects of scorn, he responded in kind. But, he also cried out with words in four other verses that show he sought his Master’s help for his own shortcomings. He asked for fellowship with Him in order to continue serving (v.1), for Divine guidance to steer those he encountered (v.2), for patience (v. 5), and for the reassurance of eternal blessing (v.6) that would spur him onward. One can guess that he got what he prayed for, since his social work continued long afterward, including his efforts to resolve an anthracite coal strike in 1902.

Washington may not have been the perfect Christian, but one could never accuse him of being lukewarm. One can imagine that perhaps he’d absorbed what God said about being hot nor cold (Revelation 3:16), and was determined to be hot, at least in respect to activism. The historical accounts of Gladden indicate his liberal interpretation of biblical topics often drew harsh conservative reaction, and that his reputation for social economic justice was also very progressive for the time. Whatever one might have thought about Washington Gladden, one could never say he was mild in his message. You suppose that he was indeed walking with God?

The following websites have the lyrics for the song, a brief version of the song story, and the author-poet’s biography:
See more information on the song discussed above also 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.  Also, see Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003; 101 Hymn Stories, Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories – Brief Biographies of 120 Hymnwriters with Their Best Hymns, Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.  

See biography of composer here:

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