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...
(The entire section is 1057 words.)