Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

John Greenleaf Whittier grew up on a New England farm and belonged to the Society of Friends (Quakers), who rarely sang hymns at their First-Day meetings. Because of the demands of farm life, Whittier received very little formal education. As a teenager, he discovered the lyric poetry of Robert Burns and was inspired to write poems. By the age of twenty, Whittier had published nearly eighty poems.

As a young man, Whittier worked as a newspaper editor and developed a friendship with the famed abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison. Soon Whittier was composing vigorous editorials and poems opposing slavery, and for the next thirty years—until the end of the American Civil War—dedicated himself to the cause of abolition. Throughout his life, Whittier composed a great variety of poems about New England life, including his most famous poem, “Snow-Bound” (1866).

In the Protestant churches of the nineteenth century, there was great enthusiasm for singing. The hymns of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley were favorites, but various denominations craved the new American hymns being composed. In 1846, two students at Harvard Divinity School, Samuel Longfellow, younger brother to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Samuel Johnson, compiled A Book of Hymns, which included Whittier’s hymns for the first time. Seeking to discover and publish hymns that were fresh and unconventional, Longfellow and Johnson lifted stanzas from Whittier’s poetry and set them to music.

Other editors continued to mine Whittier’s poetry for hymns. Because many of Whittier’s poems were composed in common meter, they were readily adaptable to the metrical standard of hymn tunes. Arranging Whittier’s stanzas in various ways, editors created perhaps as many as one hundred hymns from poems Whittier had not intended as hymns.

One of Whittier’s earliest poems so adapted is “Worship” (1848). Beginning with an epigraph from James 1:27 about the nature of “true religion,” the poem sharply contrasts various ineffectual forms of worship—red altars “smoked with warm blood,” fasting, “dismal moaning/ Of dirgelike music and sepulchral prayer,” occult symbols, and the pomp of rituals—with “the holier worship,” blessed by Jesus. The poem concludes with three stanzas of exhortation that have become part of one of Whittier’s most beloved hymns, which begins with the well-known lines of “O brother man! fold to thy heart thy brother;/ Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there.” These three stanzas embody the essence of Whittier’s Christian...

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Hymns Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Although Whittier is a Quaker poet, more of his hymns have appeared in Unitarian hymnals than in those of any other denomination. The most prominent Christian theme in his work is the eternal goodness of God, a belief to which he clung tenaciously. Whittier’s hymns give evidence to his belief in the immanence of God, rooted in the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light. Whittier believed that one could experience God directly and did not need the Sacraments or church authority to connect with God. Jesus Christ is, for Whittier, “our Friend, our Brother, and our Lord.” Jesus embodies a humanitarian and “immortal Love” that “Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,/ And feeds the widow and the fatherless!” While not strictly a pacifist, Whittier believed in a love that will triumph over war and “plant the tree of peace.”

Biblical images and references pervade his hymns, and some demonstrate a kind of parallelism associated with the Psalms. Whittier’s writing is sometimes considered simplistic and unskilled, but overall his hymns reflect a spiritual humility and deep sense of individual responsibility to God and to others.

Hymns Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Blumhofer, Edith L., and Mark A. Noll, eds. Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land: Hymnody in the History of North American Protestantism. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. Nine essays on the ways various immigrant groups in America have used hymns to sustain their cultural identity and community.

Foote, Henry Wilder. Three Centuries of American Hymnody. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1940. A historical survey of the development of American hymns that pays significant attention to Whittier’s place.

Pickard, John B. John Greenleaf Whittier: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1961. Excellent brief critical assessment of Whittier’s poetic artistry, including a chapter “Religious Lyrics.”

Pollard, John A. John Greenleaf Whittier: Friend of Man. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1949. The standard reference work on Whittier’s life and work.

Wagenknecht, Edward. John Greenleaf Whittier: A Portrait in Paradox. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Illuminates the many rich paradoxes in Whittier’s life and thought.

Watson, J. R. An Annotated Anthology of Hymns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Texts of 250 well-known hymns, chronologically ordered, each accompanied by critical and contextual commentary; especially rich in nineteenth century selections.