Singing for our Lives

Singing for our Lives

It’s been pointed out that we UU’s have no single Holy Writ, no one scripture we can look to as central to our beliefs and values. What we have instead is hymnals. UU minister and musician Jason Shelton writes: “A hymnbook represents the…self-understanding of a religious movement at a particular moment in history.” Some UU’s, especially those folks new to our denomination, may not be aware of how bound up with our history are the American social justice and reform movements; it’s instructive to look back at our 18th and 19th hymnodic history from this perspective. As well, of course, as it is to treasure (and sing!) the newer social justice songs in our current hymnals, and of course the great protest songs of our recent UU troubadours, like Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, and so many more.

For example:

Unitarian patriots like William Billings wrote great hymns for the Revolution: (1778)
“Let tyrants shake their iron rod, and slav’ry clank her galling chains;
We fear them not, we trust in God, New-england’s God forever reigns.”

Ecological awareness goes back into the early 19th century:
“Turn, turn thy hasty foot aside, nor crush that helpless worm;
The frame thy wayward looks deride required a God to form.”

The radical religious reform movement of the American early 19th century shows up in our hymnals, from as early at 1808 (!):
“As ancient bigots disagree, the Stoic and the Pharisee,
So is the modern Christian world in superstitious error hurled.
God, when shall all these errors cease, and Christians learn to live in peace,
And every weapon disapprove, except the sword of Truth and Love?”

Many of the Abolitionists were Unitarians; this is reflected in their hymnals: (Adin Ballou, 1849)
“Shall kidnapped Afric’s race, in southern bondage held,
Forever plead their deep distress, and coldly be repelled?”

Or this, from 1846:
“No outward show nor fancied strength from thy stern justice saves;
There is no liberty for them who make their brethren slaves.”

The militant feminists and early suffragettes had their great Unitarian and Universalist marching songs: (1893)
“Rise up! Rise up! O women, no longer sit at ease,
The banner of thy freedom is lifting to the breeze!”

Our denomination’s 19th century hymns often reflect our young nation’s optimism, even as they deal with injustice and bigotry, an optimism which for many may be difficult in these fractious time to recapture. From 1849:
“The happy day is dawning, the earth’s bright jubilee-
The long-expected morning that sets the shackled free.”

Or this marvelous hymn of optimism from 1852:
“Then woman, mans’ partner, man’s equal shall stand,
While beauty and harmony govern the land;
To think for oneself shall be no offence:
The world will be thinking a hundred years hence.”


And do stay tuned next fall for another of those music-rich services in which all together we Sing Our UU Heritage!



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