One of the spiritual practices in which I regularly engage is to sit down at a piano or organ keyboard with a hymnal and just play through hymns, allowing myself ample opportunity to reflect on the texts. Lately, I’ve tended to use the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1940, which is a venerable volume, arguably the finest of its genre. It’s dated, of course. Much of it would be jarring in today’s social context. However, this is precisely why I like it for this particular spiritual exercise. I never know when I’m going to come across a hymn that, while perhaps no longer credibly usable, shines a light from the past that illuminates the contemporary scene in an arresting way.
One of these is Hymn 221, which is in the Ember Days and Ordinations section of the book. It dates from 1803. There are only three short verses, of an original seven, all worth quoting here:
Ye Christian heralds, now proclaim
Salvation in Emmanuel’s Name:
To distant climes the tidings bear,
And plant the Rose of Sharon there.
God shield you with a wall of fire,
With holy zeal your hearts inspire,
His raging winds their fury cease,
And calm the savage breast to peace.
And when our labors all our o’er,
Then may we meet to part no more,
Meet, with the ransomed throng to fall,
And crown the Savior Lord of all.
The name of the tune, appropriately, is Missionary Chant. With rather little effort, one can imagine a congregation gathered to send off some its own — perhaps a married couple — to become foreign missionaries. Tears flow in abundance, because, if they are ever to see one another again in this world, it will be after many, many years. (Making the journey from England to Africa or Asia in that era was nearly tantamount to traveling to the moon today, only without the benefit of light-speed communication.)
The author is Bourne Hall Draper (1775–1843). He was reared in the Church of England, but became a Baptist early in his adulthood, and was eventually a pastor. The first half of the 19th century saw a vigorous expansion of English and American missionary efforts in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and east Asia. There was a profound sense of duty — one might argue about whether it was noblesse oblige, or, worse still, an iteration of “white man’s burden” — to evangelize among populations where Christianity did not yet have a firm toehold. Those who went off to faraway mission fields were seen, by their sending communities, at any rate, as heroic disciples of Jesus, willing to pour out their lives for the sake of the gospel. The controlling assumption was that the narrative of the incarnation, atoning death, and resurrection of Christ was saving good news for all people everywhere, in every time, and it is the missionary obligation of the whole church to do everything possible to spread that news as widely as possible.
By 1940, the apex of the Victorian-era missionary movement had passed some time earlier. Still, the sentiments of that previous era remained sufficiently robust to put Bourne’s text into the hymnal. Even so, there had been enough evolution in sensibilities to render at least two of the original verses of the hymn no longer palatable, to wit:
Set up Thy throne where Satan reigns,
On Afric shores, on India’s plains;
On wilds and continents unknown,
And be the universe Thine own!
Speak and the world shall hear Thy voice;
Speak and the deserts shall rejoice!
Scatter the shades of mortal night;
Let worthless idols flee the light!
In our own era, there are more than a few pejorative labels ending in -ist that could readily be applied to these words, and understandably so. I can’t imagine very many advocating for singing these verses in today’s climate. Even if one can look past the apparent slurs against dark-skinned peoples and their ancestral religions, the map of the Christian world has changed since they were written such that Christians of dark pigmentation are more likely to be the “sending” communities and those of Caucasian features to be the on the receiving end of evangelistic efforts.
Nonetheless, perhaps we err if we dismiss hymn texts such as this — both the included verses and the omitted ones — too reflexively. One of the traditional emphases during these weeks between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday is the church’s missionary endeavor. Precisely because of their exotic non-Jewishness, the Magi symbolize the universality of the gospel. The prophet Simeon’s canticle, which will be before us on a Sunday this year (February 2), expresses his joy that he has seen the salvation of God that is “a light to enlighten the nations,” as he holds the infant Jesus. In the Solemn Collects of Good Friday, there is no attempt to soften the universality of the gospel or the seriousness of the church’s missionary imperative:
Merciful God, creator of all the peoples of the earth and lover of souls: Have compassion on all who do not know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; let your Gospel be preached with grace and power to those who have not heard it; turn the hearts of those who resist it; and bring home to your fold those who have gone astray; that there may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.
This clearly differs in style from the poetry of Bourne Draper, which we find dated, at least, if not off-putting or offensive. But does it differ in substance? Clearly not. And, for this reason, we may legitimately wonder what might become of such a collect in any revision of the Holy Week liturgies that emanates from the current ferment. While Episcopalians are outwardly much more comfortable with the word “evangelism” than we were even a decade ago, such comfort often evaporates when evangelism extends beyond “invite your friends to church” and offers any level challenge to entrenched beliefs, be they inchoate secularism, naive “moralistic therapeutic deism,” or the formal tenets of a non-Christian religion (including Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and, with a penitential gulp, Judaism). In the current milieu, the words of the solemn collect are, at best, startling, and most probably scandalous.
Let me be clear: Coercion, overt or explicit, is not a legitimate method of bringing people to the waters of baptism. The same applies to any form of emotional manipulation, deceit, or trickery. Moreover, in advancing the claims of the gospel, it is never appropriate to malign another religion, or “bash” its adherents. In asserting the truth of Christianity, it is seldom necessary to assert the utter falsehood of another religion. Rather, we can affirm large amounts of truth that are present in non-Christian systems of thought and practice. There may be a fine line between inculturation and syncretism, but can we not afford to be generous with where we draw that line? The 19th-century missionaries who inspired the likes of Bourne Draper were motivated, above all, by love. Like Jesus surveying the multitudes, they looked with compassion on those whom they saw as “sheep without a shepherd.”
And, of course, it is incumbent upon us to go about the work of evangelism with humility, patience, indefatigable winsomeness, and, when made necessary by the behavior of our Christian forbears, with repentance for how so many have been victimized under the guise of faithfulness to the gospel.
All of this said, however, we betray the mandate of the Great Commission, we break faith with Simeon, and, indeed, with our crucified and risen Lord, when we mute our proclamation of the gospel to suggest that the only ones who ought to be Christians are those who are born into a Christian heritage, that the gospel has no purchase among peoples where it is not historically established. Without saying anything about the eternal destiny of any individual or group of people, it is our message that the gospel is for all people, in every place, and in every time. It is God’s will that there may be “one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.” We can say without embarrassment that every person ought to be a Christian.
Whether in “distant climes,” or across a backyard fence, it is our vocation to “plant the Rose of Sharon there.”
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.