Jonesboro First United Methodist Church
Monday, December 22, 2014
Gather - Grow - Give - Go... with Gratitude!
Our opening hymn this morning (UMH 318, Christ Is Alive!) is an excellent example of blending older worship traditions with contemporary voices; this hymn connects the time and place of the Wesleys with one of the great hymnists of today, who lives and works right here in the Atlanta area.
Although we tend to speak most frequently of blends in which treasured historic texts are married (sometimes for the third, fourth, or fifth time) to whatever style of pop music is contemporary at the time, sometimes the opposite process also occurs, and new texts are written for treasured, historic tunes. TRURO has been a part of English hymnody since 1789, the year after Charles Wesley died, when it appeared in the collection Psalmodia Evangelica: A Collection of Psalms and Hymns in Three Parts for Public Worship, which was compiled but not composed by Thomas Williams. Although Methodists have sung the tune ever since, no one has ever figured out who wrote it or why it is named TRURO (which is a town in Cornwall in southwestern England).
This Eastertide text is by Dr. Brian Wren, one of the most eminent hymn-writers of our time who (like the Wesleys two centuries earlier) was educated at Oxford University and who became an ordained minister in the United Reformed Church in Britain. At the time he wrote this hymn, he was minister of the Hockley and Hawkwell Congregational Church in southwest England, but since 2000 he has been John and Miriam Conant Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary here in Atlanta. (He lives in Decatur and is a member of Oakhurst Presbyterian Church there.) The emphatic dotted rhythm and rising pitch of the hymn tune’s opening are a perfect complement to the ringing proclamation of the text: “Christ is alive!”
A Savior who lives can walk beside us, as Christians have realized since the beginning of the Church. One of the oldest hymn texts still in use is an Irish hymn that dates from the end of the fourth century and is known as “The Breastplate Hymn.” (Due to its Irish origin, it is often called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”) It is extremely long, and today it is always sung in abbreviated adaptations. One adaptation by James Quinn is TFWS 2166, Christ Beside Me, which has been paired with the Gaelic tune BUNESSAN, perhaps in honor of the text’s Irish origin, but equally likely because the tune is already well known as “Morning Has Broken” (UMH 145).
The tune BUNESSAN reputedly was collected by Alexander Fraser from a wandering bard, and it was first published in Songs and Hymns of the Gael in 1888, subsequently appearing in The Irish Church Hymnal in 1917 and in numerous others. Oddly, it has acquired a reputation as a “contemporary” piece, which it certainly is not, largely through a recording by Cat Stevens (born Steven Georgiou, now called Yusuf Islam), a British pop singer of the 1960s and 1970s.
Our closing hymn, which also reminds us of the continuing presence of the living Christ in our lives, is indeed in the style of contemporary pop music—the contemporary pop music of a century ago in 1907, when its composer Alfred H. Ackley was twenty years old. Alfred Ackley (1887-1960) and his elder brother, Bentley DeForest Ackley (1872-1958), were the star composers of the Rodeheaver Publishing Company, a Chicago-based publisher that was the WORD Music of its day.
Bentley joined the Billy Sunday-Homer Rodeheaver evangelical team as pianist in 1907 and soon Alfred joined him before going on to pastorates in Pennsylvania and California; between them, they wrote more than 3,000 gospel songs for the Rodeheaver concern over the course of their careers, always continuing to write in the style that had been the “contemporary Christian music” of their youth.
This gospel song, I Serve a Risen Savior (UMH 310, better known as He Lives! from the opening of the chorus), is Ackley’s most enduring creation and was written in 1933. The chief editor of the Rodeheaver Company, George Sanville, later claimed in one of his own books that Ackley had written the song as an elaboration on a response to a question posed by a young Jew, “Why should I worship a dead Jew?” to which Ackley had replied, “But Jesus lives!”
Like many of the gospel songs by the Ackley brothers, UMH is in the musical form of a quickstep-march, which was very popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century (it was the heyday of John Philip Sousa, after all), until new styles in popular music came in with the Jazz Age of the 1920s.