One of my favorite hymns is more of a favorite tune, since the original words aren't scriptural at all, but are more of a story. I first heard the hymn, Jerusalem, in the movie Chariots of Fire. Most of you know that movie is the story of a Scottish missionary to China. I think the movie opens and closes with the popular English hymn, Jerusalem. I still remember the music and the impact it had on me - the huge organ strains and the clear high voices of the children. It furthered my interest in old songs of faith.
When I attended the Urbana Missions conference in 1982, the music director for Billy Graham gave a lecture on the appreciation of old hymns, even those from hundreds of years ago. Considering the direction of the Baptist spin-off churches today and their avoidance of any traditional hymns, this was ironic instruction. He led us through Crown Him with Many Crowns and other old favorites. He had us (us being thousands of students from around the country and world seated in a large stadium) speak the hymn as he explained the deep meaning of each line. He gave us background each hymn writer, so that we could see the author as a fellow Christian who just happened to live during a different period of time. I never sang an old hymn in the same way again. To this day, when I sing a hymn I am confronted with the knowledge that a person who loves God wrote that hymn, maybe even during a time of deep spiritual crisis. Also, the older a hymn, the more time-tested the scriptural validity of the words.
You won't find the hymn, Jerusalem, in my church's hymnal, but I did get to enjoy it once again during Ronald Reagan's funeral last Friday. According to Nationmaster.com, the music was written by Charles H. H. Parry in 1916 and the original lyrics were a poem, "And did those feet in ancient time", written by William Blake in 1804. The poem was based on a combination of old English folklore that Jesus visited ancient England as a teenager with Joseph of Arimathea, and on the bible verse "The hills were full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha." 2 Kings 6:17. Nationmaster.com says, This is considered to be one of England's most popular patriotic songs. It is variously associated (thereby holding a somewhat unique position) with English and British nationalism, anti-modernism, post-modernism, socialist ideals, and Christianity. Jerusalem is the official anthem of the British Women's Institute, and historically was used by the National Union of Suffrage Societies. The poem was inspired by the old legend that Jesus, whilst still a young man, accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury via the nearby Roman port. Blake's biographers tell us that he believed in this legend." While I don't believe that Jesus did visit England, the sentiment is appreciable.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
While researching this hymn, I found a very moving account of a man's visit to England at the recent turn of the century:
New Year’s Eve, like most late January days in northern England, was cold and overcast. I said that I wasn’t going to get caught up in the Millennium hype but when noon rolled around, there I was in front of the TV set watching the year 2,000 begin on an island in the south Pacific where it was warm and dry.
In our little corner of the world, St. James C of E Church in the village was going to have a Watchnight service at 11:15 and then there was going to be a bonfire in the village. Not exactly the river of fire on the Thames but it seemed a lot more appropriate to end the second Christian millennium than crowded together with a few million people I had never met before.
The service was crowded and started with a hymn I had not sung in years but have always loved. “Oh God, our help in ages past/ Our hope for years to come./ Our shelter from the stormy blast,/ and our eternal home.” It seemed most appropriate.
The Vicar led the service but there was no sermon. Several prayers were read, starting with St. Patrick from the 5th Century and ending with Natalie Webb, a nine year-old from the end of the 20th. Many hymns were sung.
At the end of the service we filed out of the chapel and were given torches for the half-mile long walk to the common where the bonfire would be. The line of torches was irregular but formed a clear path through the Victorian village. There is little doubt that they might have been surprised by the tarmac on the road or the one street light in town, but I’m confident that one of Queen Victoria’s subjects would have quickly understood and joined the procession.
At midnight the bonfire was lit and rather than with a huge commotion, the new millennium came to this corner of Yorkshire with people knotted in small groups, speaking in low voices. While the bonfire burned the groups moved back and forth, between the dark and cold of the night and the light and warmth of the fire. Lights danced on the people, and faces changed from bright celebration to shadowed contemplation. It was hard know if the emotions of the people or the light of the fire caused the changes.
The bonfire burned out and we headed home with two tired girls that we carried inside the house.
In the five months since that night, there have been a few lingering images: the gentleman next to me at church who had obviously indulged in the New Year’s spirits before coming to the service; the mud of the path onto the common; the embracing warmth of the whisky I drank from a flask to toast the new millennium; and those scattered torches moving silently through the village.
There is one thing that has remained very clear. It was more of a feeling than a sight or sound. As the sermon ended we sang one last hymn, Jerusalem, a song many would like to see named the English national anthem. As we sang the words I was suddenly overcome by the enormity of standing on the cusp of the third Christian millennium. Here in England one feels the weight of the centuries all around. Singing that song, a feeling crept into the core of me and I knew that thousands years of history were physically present that night.
This journal entry, written by Vic McInnis, can be found at: http://standrewssociety.tripod.com/vic-052300.htm
Wow, I'm not the only person to be so moved by the music and lyrics of this hymn. Here are the words to the more modern and scriptural version written by Horatio Bonar in 1858. This is the version sung at Ronald Reagan's funeral last Friday morning -
O love of God, how strong and true,
Eternal and yet ever new;
Uncomprehended and unbought,
Beyond all knowledge and all thought;
O love of God, how deep and great,
Far deeper than man's deepest hate;
Self-fed, self-kindled like the light,
Changeless, eternal, infinite.
O heavenly love, how precious still,
In days of weariness and ill,
In nights of pain and helplessness,
To heal, to comfort and to bless!
O wide-embracing, wondrous love!
We read you in the sky above,
We read you in the earth below,
In seas that swell and streams that flow.
We read you best in Him who came
To bear for us the cross of shame;
Sent by the Father from on high,
Our life to live, our death to die.
We read Your power to bless and save,
Even in the darkness of the grave;
Still more in resurrection light
We read the fullness of Your might.
O love of God, our shield and stray
Through all the perils of our way!
Eternal love, in you we rest
Forever safe, forever blest.
We will exalt you, God and King,
And we will ever praise your name;
We will extol you every day,
And evermore your praise proclaim.