GREAT UNITARIAN SONGWRITERS

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GREAT UNITARIAN SONGWRITERS

  1. 1. GREAT UNITARIAN SONGWRITERS A Revised Precis of an Address Delivered by IAN ELLIS-JONES at the Sydney Unitarian Church on 16 May 2004It has been estimated that over 5,000,000 hymns have been written in thehistory of the Church. Hymn singing has been a vital part of the Church forseveral centuries. Many great hymns and songs, that have found their wayinto the hymnbooks of all denominations, were written by Unitarians. Here,very briefly, are the stories of twelve great Unitarian songwriters and a littleabout some of their more important hymns and songs.Robert Robinson (1735-1790)Robinson, an Englishman, was originally a bit of a rebel. Nevertheless, heconverted to Christianity at age 17, and subsequently became a Methodistminister. However, in the words of one of the hymns that he wrote, "Come,Thou Fount of Every Blessing", he was "prone to wander ... prone to leave theGod I love". He wandered from Methodist to Independent to Baptist, and wasreportedly not a very happy man. Eventually he embraced Unitarian views,dying in the company of his Unitarian friend, the great Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).John Pierpont (1785-1866)Pierpont, who was born in Connecticut, graduated from Yale College. Helater became a lawyer, then went into business, and later still studiedtheology, becoming the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Hollis Street,Boston, Massachusetts. He was a noted Abolitionist and social reformer.One of his great hymns is "O Thou to Whom, in Ancient Time", which hewrote for the opening of the Independent Congregational Church in BartonSquare, Salem, Massachusetts, on 7 December 1824. See also James LordPierpont, below.Sir John Bowring (1792-1872)Bowring, who had been born into a Unitarian family, was, among other things,a renowned linguist. (He was proficient in 5 different languages before theage of 16, was fluent in over 20 languages, could speak 80 more, and wasknown for his translations of Dutch poetry.) In addition, he was a politicaleconomist, reformer, hymnist and writer. He was also the Governor of HongKong, and agent of the imperial policies, at a time when the British Empirewas forcing the opium traffic on China. He was knighted in 1854 and wastwice a member of Parliament. His hymns include "In the Cross of Christ IGlory" and "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night".Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)Emerson, the son of the Unitarian pastor of Bostons fashionable First Church,was one of the most influential literary figures of the 19th century. Althoughhe endured a lot of suffering and loss in his personal and family life, henevertheless distinguished himself as a Unitarian minister, philosopher,
  2. 2. educator, traveller, essayer and lecturer. He was the author of the hymn, "WeSing of Golden Mornings", a song full of religious naturalism.Sarah Fuller Flower Adams (1805-1848)Adams, an Englishwoman, and the daughter of a journalist and politician, isthe much celebrated hymn writer of "Nearer, My God, to Thee", a hymn thathas been greatly identified with tragic situations, including the sinking of theTitanic and the memorial services in honour of US President WilliamMcKinley. Adams had taken up hymn writing when failing health forced her togive up her career as an actress. She wrote "Nearer, My God, to Thee" forher minister, the Rev William J Fox (of South Place Unitarian Church,Finsbury, London), who was looking for a hymn to close a sermon on Jacoband Esau.Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1870)Sears was born in Sandisfield, Massachusetts. He was educated at HarvardDivinity School. Although a Unitarian minister, he believed in the divinity ofChrist. He wrote "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" at a time when theUnited States was in the midst of great social upheaval as a result of theindustrial revolution and the growing debate over slavery. Sears was awareof these problems and, in a verse that is usually omitted from mosthymnbooks, wrote of "[t]wo thousand years of wrong ... man, at war withman".James Russell Lowell (1819-1891)Lowell, who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a prominent poetand author. A graduate of Harvard College, he was admitted to the bar in1840 and later became Professor of Modern Languages and Literature atHarvard. He was an editor of the Atlantic Monthly and served as Americanminister to Spain. He wrote the hymns "Once to Every Man and Nation" and"What Means This Glory Round Our Feet". In the firstmentioned hymn Lowellspoke out against what he thought was the plan of the slave-holding states togain more territory: "Once to every man and nation / Comes the moment todecide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side."Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)Howe was born in New York City and died at the age of 91. She was aUnitarian Abolitionist. The horror of the Civil war inspired her to call uponwomen to work for disarmament. In 1861 she was riding through the UnionArmy camps as a guest of President Lincoln when she heard the Federaltroops singing the popular Southern tune, "John Browns Body". That inspiredher to write "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory" (the "Battle Hymn of theRepublic"), which was sung or played at the funerals of such notables as SirWinston Churchill, Senator Robert F Kennedy, and Presidents Richard Nixonand Ronald Reagan.Samuel Longfellow (1819-1892)Longfellow, who was the brother of famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,was born in Portland, Maine. He attended both Harvard College andCambridge Divinity School and was subsequently ordained a Unitarian
  3. 3. minister. An ardent theist and mystic, he served Unitarian churches in variousparts of the United States. Ill health, together with the desire to write the lifeof his brother, were the reasons for his early retirement from the Unitarianministry. Among the beautiful hymns he wrote is "Holy Spirit, Truth Divine".James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893)The last Unitarian minister of what is now the Unitarian Universalist Church ofSavannah, Georgia, before the Civil war was the Rev John Pierpont Jr (1819-1879), a native of Boston and son of the abovementioned John Pierpont(1785-1866). The brother of John Pierpont Jr, James Lord Pierpont, was thechurch organist. He also gave organ and singing lessons at the church. Healso wrote "Jingle Bells".Edwin Henry Wilson (1898-1993)Wilson was born in Woodhaven, New York, and was raised in Concord,Massachusetts, where he attended the First Parish Church, a Unitarianfellowship. Wilson attended Meadville Theological School, was ordained, andserved as a Unitarian minister for 65 years. Recognised as the founder oforganised Humanism in the United States, he was one of the founders of theAmerican Humanist Association, was a primary author of both HumanistManifesto I (1933) and Humanist Manifesto II (1973), and also participated inthe founding and naming of the International Humanist and Ethical Union(IHEU) uniting the Humanist movement worldwide. He wrote the hymn,"Where is our Holy Church?"Carolyn McDade (born 1935)Carolyn McDade, who was born and raised in Louisiana, grew up with onesister in a Southern Baptist family. She has lived in New England for over 30years, and played, sang and wrote music for the Arlington Street WomensCaucus in Boston in the 1970s. She is a social activist, theologian and"spiritual feminist". She has written "Come Sing a Song with Me" as well asthe ever-popular "Spirit of Life", which is perhaps the widest known and mostlived hymn in the contemporary Unitarian and UU repertory. -oo0oo-

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