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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1472

First published: 1846

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Edition(s) used: The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892

Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry

Core issue(s): Celebration; Jesus Christ; love; Quakers

Christian Themes

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 beliefs. Whittier states “to worship rightly is to love each other,” and to follow the example of Christ by “doing good” makes the entire earth God’s temple.

“Seedtime and Harvest” (1850) yielded a hymn said to have been a favorite of President William McKinley. The images of farmers going forth to sow and ripened fields of grain evoke the parables of Christ. Whittier, however, uses these biblical images to emphasize the dynamic quality of the life of faith, “where our duty’s task is wrought/ In unison with God’s great thought.” God’s purpose is accomplished through individuals actively doing their duty.

Whittier’s most famous hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” which first appeared in Congregational Hymns (1884), was cut from a curious poem, “The Brewing of Soma” (1872), in which Whittier portrays the ritualistic brewing and use of a psychoactive substance. The distillation of “soma” represents the madness of all kinds of religious excess, found even in Christianity: “We brew in many a Christian fane/ The heathen Soma still!” This provides the context for the hymn that follows, a prayer asking God to “forgive our foolish ways” and to grant us ordered lives of quietness and peace.

“My Psalm” (1859), like the biblical Psalms, is rich in natural imagery: April rain, glad streams, a blue-eyed gentian, the pale aster, a brook, and mountain ranges are among the many good things the poet takes in through the wide-open “windows” of his soul. This kind of receptivity also embraces death, care, and trials, for even “the jarring notes of life/ Seem blended in a psalm.” Unfortunately, the hymn, “All as God wills,” excerpts the rather abstract second half of the poem (“more and more a providence/ Of love is understood”), omitting the many physical details of the first half.

Whittier’s trust in God’s goodness and love is best expressed in “The Eternal Goodness” (1865), a poem from which several hymns have been drawn. This very personal yet humble composition begins with a series of contrasts. Addressing those who hold to the “iron creeds” of their Calvinistic convictions, Whittier presents the simple pleading of the heart. While the Calvinists emphasize God’s justice, he clings to the knowledge “that God is love.” They see the curse of Original Sin brooding over the world; he hears the Beatitudes and the Lord’s cry from the cross. Where they “tread with boldness shod,” he walks “with bare, hushed feet.” In a manner both direct and confessional, Whittier acknowledges the pain perceived in the world around him: “I see the wrong,” “I feel the guilt,” and “I hear, with groan and travail cries. . . .” Yet even more, he says, “I know that God is good!” Various hymns created from “The Eternal Goodness” excerpt and arrange the stanzas in differing ways. One hymn begins with the line, “I know not what the future hath/ Of marvel or surprise,” and another hymn ends with that stanza. Nevertheless, all the hymns affirm the importance of “knowing” the goodness of God. The complete poem, however, provides the declaration of not only what the poet knows about the eternal goodness but also how he knows it.

“Our Master” (1856), Whittier’s most Christological poem, has also produced several hymns with differently arranged stanzas. To Whittier, Jesus Christ is not to be found in “the heavenly steeps” or through the Sacraments or the Scriptures, nor is he to be looked for in a literal Second Coming. “His witness is within,” declares Whittier. “We touch him in life’s throng and press,/ And we are whole again.” The reality of Christ is found through the experience of the human heart, where “faith has still its Olivet,/ And love its Galilee.”

“At Last” (1882), written in the form of a deathbed prayer, has become one of Whittier’s most comforting hymns. It reflects Whittier’s abiding trust in God’s love and care and his unwavering hope for eternal life.

Christian Themes

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.

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.

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