The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

From Greenland's icy mountains

Words: Reginald Heber, 1819

Music: Missionary, Lowell Mason
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML
Aurelia, Samuel S. Wesley
MIDI / Noteworthy Composer / PDF / XML
Calcutta
Meter: 76 76 D

1. From Greenland’s icy mountains,
    From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
    Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
    From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
    Their land from error’s chain.

2. What though the spicy breezes
    Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
    And only man is vile:
In vain with lavish kindness
    The gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness
    Bows down to wood and stone.

3. Can we, whose souls are lighted
    With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
    The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation!
    The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
    Has learned Messiah’s Name.

4. Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,
    And you, ye waters, roll,
Till like a sea of glory
    It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature
    The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
    In bliss returns to reign.

Sheet Music from William Sterndale Bennett and Otto Goldschmidt, eds., The Chorale Book For England. Congregational Edition. (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green, 1863, Supp. 1865), #231.

Sheet music from A. B. Goodrich, ed., A New Service And Tune Book For Sunday Schools (New York: Gen. Prot. Episc. S. S. Union and Church Book Society, 1863, New Edition, Enlarged, 1866), #19, pp. 40-1.

Sheet Music "Aurelia" by S. S. Wesley from Mary Palmer and John Farmer, eds., Church Sunday School Hymn-Book (London: Church of England Sunday-School Institute, 1892), #102.

Sheet Music "Missionary Hymn" from Henry Sloane Coffin and Ambrose White Vernon, eds., Hymns of the Kingdom of God. New York: The A. S. Barnes Company, 1910, #167.

 


Editor's Note: The following commentary is by Louis F. Benson from Studies Of Familiar Hymns, First Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press. 1924). At the end of his commentary, Rev. Benson offers "some points for discussion." Please consider these questions as those posed for your own consideration, or for discussion with friends or members of your congregation. Due to a lengthy illness, I regret that I am not able to respond to your thoughts or questions.

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1. From Greenland’s icy mountains,
    From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
    Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
    From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
    Their land from error’s chain.

2. What though the spicy breezes
    Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
    And only man is vile:
In vain with lavish kindness
    The gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness
    Bows down to wood and stone.

3. Can we, whose souls are lighted
    With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
    The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation!
    The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
    Has learned Messiah’s Name.

4. Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,
    And you, ye waters, roll,
Till like a sea of glory
    It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature
    The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
    In bliss returns to reign.

    Rev. Reginald Heber, 1819

NOTE: The text is that of Bishop Heber’s manuscript.

THE STORY OF THE HYMN

In February, 1819, a royal letter was issued authorizing a special offering for foreign missions in all churches and chapels of Great Britain. Whitsunday of that year fell on the 30th of May, and Dr. Shipley, dean of St. Asaph, appointed the morning of that day for making the offering in the parish church of Wrexham, of which he was the vicar. It happened that he had also arranged for a course of Sunday-evening lectures in his church to begin that same day. His son-in-law, the Rev. Reginald Heber, had come to Wrexham to deliver the opening lecture.

In those days the singing of hymns was not authorized in the Church of England, but they had pushed in, none the less. Heber remarks in one of his letters that “hardly a collection is made for charitable purposes without a hymn for the occasion.” But missionary hymns were not then so numerous as now, and the vicar seems to have been at a loss for one to sing in connection with the next day’s collection. Yet he had a poet for a son-in-law, and the son-in-law was in the house; and it occurred to him that a new hymn might be secured for the occasion. For our knowledge of just what happened we are dependent upon a printed statement of Thomas Edgworth, a solicitor of Wrexham. “In the course of the Saturday previous,” Mr. Edgworth says, “the dean and his son-in-law being together in the vicarage, the former requested Heber to ‘write something for them to sing in the morning’; and he retired for that purpose, from the table where the dean and a few friends were sitting, to a distant part of the room. In a short time “the dean inquired, ‘What have you written?’ Heber, having then composed the first three verses, read them over. ‘There, there, that will do very well,’ said the dean. ‘No, no, the sense is not complete,’ replied Heber. Accordingly he added the fourth verse, and the dean being inexorable to his repeated request of ‘Let me add another, 0 let me add another,’ thus completed the hymn . . . which has since become so celebrated. It was sung the next morning in Wrexham Church, the first time.” Tradition says it was sung to the old ballad tune, “‘Twas when the Seas were Roaring.”

The hymn had been set up and printed that Saturday evening, to be ready for the use of the congregation. The original manuscript which served as “copy” was happily preserved, bearing the scar made by the copy-hook on which it had been impaled. It was exhibited in 1851 at the World’s Exhibition in London. It passed into the possession of Dr. Thomas Raffles, of Liverpool, at one time a hymn writer of some reputation, and also an enthusiastic collector of autographs. When his collection came to be sold, it excited much competition, and brought forty-two pounds, — a larger sum than the amount of that missionary collection at Wrexham Church.

Heber’s hymn made its way quickly. Just after his appointment as Bishop of Calcutta brought him into general notice, a correspondent sent to The Christian Observer a copy of the hymn with a letter calling attention to it as written by the new bishop. The hymn and letter appeared in the number for February, 1823, and as an edition of the magazine was reprinted in the United States, it made the hymn known in both countries. On that account the letter is worth reproducing here. It is hardly less interesting on its own account as a perfect specimen of that still familiar type of appreciation which is no less self-conscious than it is generous, and also of a rhetoric as stilted as the patronage.

To the Editor of the Christian Observer.

The following missionary hymn is so beautiful, considered as poetry, and so honourable as the effusion of a Christian mind, that I should request its insertion in your pages, even if it were not the production of a writer whose devout and elevated muse justly obtained your labours [referring to an earlier review of Heber’s Palestine]; whose name has since been often mentioned in your pages with high respect; and whose appointment, to a most important station in the church of Christ, you have recently announced with a pleasure which is shared by all who have at heart the moral and spiritual welfare of our numerous fellow-subjects, native and European, in the East. The hymn having appeared some time since in print with the name of Reginald Heber annexed, I can feel no scruple in annexing that name to it on the present occasion. There is nothing, either in the sentiments or the poetry, but what does honour to the now Right Reverend prelate, while it must delight every Christian mind to witness such devout ardour for the extension of ‘Messiah’s Name,’ in a station so eminently important for giving effect to that desire in all those measures which Christian piety, meekness, and prudence may suggest. J.”

The best service performed by this euphonious patron lay in the fact that his letter brought the hymn to the attention of Miss Mary W. Howard, of Savannah, Georgia. She saw the possibilities of Bishop Heber’s hymn, but knew of no suitable tune that would carry the words, written as they were in a metre not then much used in hymns. Lowell Mason was at the time a bank clerk in the same town; but he had already begun the musical career which was to bring him fame and do so much for congregational singing. Boston was destined to be the scene of his more conspicuous labors, but already in Savannah he was teaching a singing-school and leading a choir, and the year before he had published the pioneer of his long line of tune books. To him Miss Howard brought the words of this hymn, and he wrote for it his now famous tune, Missionary Hymn, and printed it as sheet music, with the legend, “Composed for and Dedicated to Miss Mary W. Howard, of Savannah, Georgia.” The effect of Mason’s tune has been to make “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” the inevitable hymn for all missionary occasions in this country; and in England, even to this day, the tune is frequently heard in churches where music of the severer type known as Anglican has come to prevail.

THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN

When Thackeray, in his Four Georges, had grown weary of flinging his darts at the padded figure of the First Gentleman of Europe, he turned to “tell of better gentlemen” of the reign of George IV.; among others of “the good divine, Reginald Heber, as one of the best of English gentlemen, — the charming poet, the happy possessor of all sorts of gifts and accomplishments, birth, wit, fame, high character, competence.”

Reginald Heber was born April 21st, 1783, at Malpas, of which parish his father was rector. He wrote verses from childhood, and in i8oo, his first year at Oxford, gained a prize for the best Latin verse. Three years later, he won the Newdigate prize by his “Palestine,” one of the few college prize poems that have taken  place in literature. Sir Walter Scott wrote in his Journal, March 12th, 1829: “Read Reginald Heber’s journal after dinner. I spent some merry days with him at Oxford when he was writing his prize poem. He was then a gay young fellow, a wit and a satirist, and burning for literary fame. My laurels were beginning to bloom, and we were both madcaps. Who would have foretold our future lot?”

In 1804 Heber took his degree, spending two years in travel on the Continent. Ordained in 1807, he was presented by his brother with the family living of Hodnet. He soon married, and for sixteen years remained the faithful friend of his people in what he called a halfway situation between a parson and a squire. Of the beautiful home-life at Hodnet rectory, and the pain of breaking it up when the call to India came, we catch some glimpses in the second chapter of Augustus Hare’s Memorials of a Quiet Life. Always faithful to parish duties, Heber was ardently devoted to literary pursuits. Besides his poems, he did much editorial work, and was one of the original staff of writers on the famous Quarterly Review. He wrote also a life of Jeremy Taylor, and edited an edition of Taylor’s Complete Works which is still the best. He held, too, a place of his own in the literary society of the time. But his literary career came to an end with his call to India when he was only forty years of age.

While at Hodnet many honors came to him, for all men admired him. While still a young man he was the Bampton lecturer at Oxford, and in 1822 was elected preacher of Lincoln’s Inn, London. When forty years old he was offered the appointment of Bishop of Calcutta. Twice he refused for the sake of wife and child; but he had much of the missionary spirit and an especial fondness for India, and he finally accepted the call as from God. On June i6th, 1823, he sailed for the new home, and never again was to see the old. He began at once the visitation of his vast diocese, which included all India, Ceylon, the Mauritius, and Australasia. His abilities and enthusiastic labors made a great mark upon the diocese, but his administration was very brief. Returning from a service at Trichinopoly, on April 3rd, 1826, he retired to take a cold bath, and half an hour afterward was found dead in his room by a servant.

In politics Bishop Heber was a Tory, in theology an Arminian, in religious views a High Churchman. But all his opinions were subject to the law of charity. He entered into no controversy, and was warmly loved for his beautiful character, his religious enthusiasm, and his engaging ways.

His attention was turned to hymn writing by the unsatisfactory state of psalmody in the Church of England. Clergy and people had wearied of metrical psalm versions, and although hymns had never been authorized, insisted on using them in church. Heber was ambitious to write hymns that should win the sanction of the authorities and make part of an authorized hymnal. But the authorities counseled delay, and his hymn book was first published by his widow in 1827, as “Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year.” It contained fifty-seven of Heber’s hymns. A considerable number of these had been printed by him in The Christian Observer between the years 1811 and i8i6. Most of the others first saw the light when his hymn book came to be printed. To this hymn book there will be occasion to recur in studying a hymn of Dean Milman. Heber is perhaps the only extensive hymn writer in the language of whom it may be said that every hymn he wrote has come into actual use.

SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) What did the author mean when he insisted on writing a fourth verse because the sense was not complete without it; just what, in other words, does that verse add to the structure or thought of the hymn?

(2) In The Hymnal (and here) the hymn is printed as originally written. Bishop Heber’s allusion in the second verse to the spicy breezes from Ceylon is both explained and illustrated by a passage in his Journal of a Voyage to India, where, under the date of September, 1823, he writes: “Though we were now too far off Ceylon to catch the odors of the land, yet it is, we are assured, perfectly true that such odors are perceptible to a very considerable distance. In the Straits of Malacca a smell like that of a hawthorn hedge is commonly experienced; and from Ceylon, at thirty or forty miles, under certain circumstances, a yet more agreeable scent is inhaled.” In spite, however, of Bishop Heber’s confirmation of the appropriateness of his earlier allusion to Ceylon, it remains true that when his hymns came to be printed in 1827 by his widow, the passage in question was made to read:—

What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o’er Java’s isle ;“—

No explanation of the change has ever been made.

In many hymn books the word “each” in the seventh line of the third verse is changed to “earth’s.” Is there any good reason for either change?

(3) The non-Christian religions are now regarded with a more sympathetic feeling than in Bishop Heber’s time. Has the growth of this feeling had any effect upon our estimate of the appropriateness and usefulness of this hymn? Compare it in this respect with Bishop Coxe’s missionary hymn, “Saviour, Sprinkle Many Nations” (The Hymnal, No. 399).

(4) Bishop Heber lived at a time when English lyrical poetry had a great development under Walter Scott, Byron, and others. His aim in writing hymns was to get something of this new lyrical grace and charm into the hymns of the Church. Of his original hymns there are nine in The Hymnal (see its Index of Authors). Do they show that he succeeded in his purpose? One of them Lord Tennyson thought the greatest hymn in the language. In the opinion of others Heber’s style was somewhat too ornate and flowing for hymn writing.

(5) The hymns of the Church may be called the flowers of the Church’s history. The hymns of any epoch grow out of the spiritual life of that epoch, and express its best thought and feeling. Of this Bishop Heber’s hymn is an example. The hymn itself is the outgrowth of that missionary movement in England whose influences had surrounded him while growing up. The movement arose with the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Baptist Missionary Society was founded in 1792, the London Missionary Society in 1795; within the Church of England an active Society for Missions to Africa was started in 1799, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel began a new career with the new century. it was only in 1813 that the obstacles to missionary work in Heber’s beloved India were overcome and the way declared open by Parliament. The aroused conscience and quickened pulse of England have a witness in this and other hymns of the time. And is it not somewhat surprising that the increased missionary enthusiasm of the latter part of the century did not more freely embody itself in hymns that should gain the ear and heart of the Church? The new missionary literature has attained great proportions, but in it all hymnody plays a rather inconspicuous part. Yet there would seem to be room in our hymnals for fresh missionary hymns; and without increasing the size of the books, from which, one would think, some few of the more prosaic hymns on that theme might go without serious loss.

Editor's Note:

Another source states that the writing of this hymn is commemorated in a tablet on the wall of the Vicarage Hill in Wrexham. The words of the hymn are found on a window at the Wrexham Steeple, the 16th century tower of the Church of St. Giles.

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