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At my home church in Birmingham, Alabama, and in churches I visit across the country, I often sing G. K. Chesterton’s “O God of Earth and Altar” to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s magnificent setting of Kings Lynn.
Written when Chesterton was in his early thirties, the hymn pulses with the bombast of nineteenth-century Anglican hymnody. Chesterton wouldn’t have taken “bombast” as an insult. He once said he could imagine Jesus leading a brass band on parade, since it was clear from the Gospels that “Christ definitely approved a natural noisiness at a great moment.” Initially entitled “A Hymn,” the poem appeared in The Christian Commonwealth, and has been included in hymnals ever since—the 1906 English Hymnal and The Hymnal (1940), as well as in Lutheran, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Reformed collections.
Musically and lyrically, it’s a rousing anthem:
Our people drift and die;
But take away our pride.
Deliver us, good Lord.
Smite us and save us all;
A single sword to thee.
Hymns - Portrait - Condition—lies - Terror - Cruelty
Few hymns offer so stark a portrait of the human condition—lies, terror, cruelty disguised as niceness, tombs of gold, lazy indifference, pride. It’s stark, and very contemporary. “Swords of scorn divide”: Chesterton could have been watching CNN or Fox News, or following Twitter. Chesterton doesn’t permit a jot of sentimentality. No “Sweet Hour of Prayer” for him; his prayer is an anguished cry. He’s not looking for a gently wafting Spirit; Chesterton invokes divine thunder. He doesn’t want God to hold back, because he knows salvation lies on the far side of judgment: “Smite us and save us all.”
I love the hymn and so do the congregations who sing it, but I can’t help sensing a rift between the hymn and the singers. After all, these are Protestants, singing a poem written by an English Catholic (though he was Anglican when he wrote it). They’re Americans, praying...
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