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Bible Study

Dear Lord and Father of mankind: John Greenleaf Whittier

Bible Study by David Wright

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), an American Quaker, was a farmer’s son, living in New England. At first he worked on his father’s farm – hence, perhaps, his feeling for beauty and peace. Later he became a poet and a newspaper editor, writing not only poems but also anti-slavery propaganda. He did not write hymns: the poems have subsequently been adapted for use as hymns. Among the other well-known hymns which have been abstracted from his poems are ‘Immortal love, for ever full’ and ‘O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother’.

‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ is a hymn which must have the most unusual origin of all. Very few people know that it is part of a poem entitled, ‘The brewing of Soma’. Soma is an intoxicating drug that was used by Indians. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote of ‘pseudo-experience’, of shallow, ‘frothy’ Christianity, comparing them with the superficial, transient joy of drug-taking. The verses of the poem that have become this well-known hymn contrast real faith with such, ‘foolish ways’ (verse 1, line 2). Only through purer lives and deeper reverence (verse 1, lines 4-5) can we come to a real faith – and this can only happen if we ask God to forgive us (verse 1, line 2) and to reclothe us in our rightful mind (verse 1, line 3).

Simple trust is called for – rising up and following the Lord, like the disciples ‘beside the Syrian Sea’ (i.e. the Sea of Galilee, verse 2). And silence is needed – the calm of lake and hills (verse 3) – to enable us to hear the ‘whisper of thy call’ (verse 4, line 3). God does not shout, forcing us to listen, but if we cease to strive (verse 5); if we ask God to take the strain and stress from us, then we can hear the ‘still, small voice of calm.’ (verse 6). Our ordered lives will then recognise the beauty of peace (verse 5, lines 4-5): not merely peace, but God’s peace, that ‘passeth all understanding’ (Philippians 4:7). The hymn both speaks of Jesus retreating from the crowds to be alone with God and alludes to Elijah’s encounter with God in the ‘still small voice’ after the earthquake, wind and fire (I Kings 19).

This is a hymn, written many years ago by a poet, based on one simple yet profound theme. As stress becomes more and more evident around us and within us, and as both drugs and ‘frothy’, superficial worship seem to be on the increase, so this hymn becomes more and more meaningful to our experience.

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