Saturday, March 25, 2017

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind -- John Greenleaf Whittier

This 65-year old Quaker was expressing his disdain for substance abuse with a poem, his most common way of taking a stand and making a plea for sanity and sobriety in the culture where he found himself. And yet, ironically, John Greenleaf Whittier may have never actually sung in a formal worship service the words he crafted for “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.  What must it have been like for such a poet, so elegant in his effort and yet wary of the adaptation of his gifted prose for worship, to see his words engage other believers in a way that was foreign to himself? Perhaps he’d seen too many so-called Christians earlier in his life whose behavior, indeed their very way of life, was scandalous. Better maybe not to sing and be a genuine worshipper, than to sing like a bird and with an emotional fervor not matched by one’s true life. That sums up this 19th Century poet.

John Greenleaf Whittier’s Quaker background and the social justice he advocated comes through in his poetry, including the one he composed as a response to passionate -- but temporary --worship in 1872. He was apparently disparaging the Hindu practice, at least among some of their adherents, of using Soma (a drug) as a hallucinogen to induce ‘an experience’. His original 17-verse condemnation wasn’t limited to Hindus however, since he’d observed many in his own country reaching out to the heavens with a fleeting energy that belied true God-belief. His own beliefs directed that a Christ-believer should first and foremost treat his fellow man with charity, and then offer his worship vertically every day. This approach had been induced to his character from childhood and from the Quaker parents who raised him. Whittier’s lifetime, during which American slavery’s scourge reached its fruition, defined him to a great extent. He was a noted abolitionist for some 30 years, making active his social justice beliefs, and undoubtedly coloring his perspective of what makes a Christian genuine. Thus, by his mid-60s, Whittier’s impressions had been developing for several decades, a period in which it is said he deplored camp meetings and revivals and their accompanying zeal. Instead, ‘ordered lives’ (v. 5) and a quiet demeanor (‘deeper reverence’ [v.1], ‘deep hush’ [v.4], and ‘calm’ [vv. 3 and 6]) were traits that the composer valued, and which he believed mirrored God’s nature. Though his Quaker traditions did not include hymn-singing, Whittier did not seem to object to them. Maybe to his contemporaries, Whittier’s well-known beliefs would have spoken loudly and clearly to those who still chose to sing his verses.

Whittier’s words and his life-example have much to say; they could compel me to say a lot less than I have been. This 19th Century poet may have noticed that God has so little to say across vast stretches of time, and when He does, sometimes it’s just a whisper (1 Kings 19:12). So, does He care that I waffle between enthusiasm and indifference? If I were more consistent, would He reward that? What exactly can I sustain? Those are all questions that Whittier may have been asking, too. Live seven days every week, just at a lower volume. Try turning down that dial for a few days, enough to hear that low hum. That’s Him.            

The following website has the lyrics for the song and a brief version of the song story:

See biography of composer here:  

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; and 101 More Hymn Stories, Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985.  

Link to the original poem, from which the song is derived:

No comments: