Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
This hymn, by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), often features in the top two or three in polls of favourite hymns, both in the UK and in the US.
Hearing the hymn sung again recently with the usual lusty enthusiasm caused me to reflect on how singularly usuitable it is to be sung as a hymn at all.
It is taken from a long poem called ‘The Brewing of Soma’. ‘Soma’ was an intoxicating drink used in Vedic rituals by Hindus in India. Its hallucinogenic effects were used to produce a state of religious frenzy.
In that poem, Whittier expresses his strong dislike of the emotional heartiness of much Christian worship by comparing it to the effects produced by drinking the ‘Soma’. It is for these ‘foolish’ ways that the first few lines of the hymn beg forgiveness from God.
As a Quaker, Whittier had a strong aversion to the expression of hearty emotions in worship, and his hymn expresses the conviction that God is to be found in silence and stillness rather than through noise and excitement.
We may conclude that
(a) few people who sing Whittier’s verses can have much idea what they are all about;
(b) Whittier himself would have been horrified for them to have been turned into a hymn at all, let alone one sung with such gusto;
(c) it is quite unscriptural to think that God comes only with a ‘still small voice’. I seem to recall one occasion when he came with a ‘mighty rushing wind.’ We do not need to look further than the Psalms to see that God’s people may, and do, express their feelings towards him in a whole range of ways, varying from stifled sobs to exultant shouts.
See Bradley, The Penguin Book of Hymns, 106-108.