Posted by: rcottrill | April 28, 2014

Hark, Hark, My Soul

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Words: Frederick William Faber (b. June 28, 1814; d. Sept. 26, 1863)
Music: Pilgrims, by Henry Thomas Smart (b. Oct. 26, 1813; d. July 6, 1879)

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The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Faber was an Anglican, later turned Roman Catholic, who hoped to provide the Catholic Church with an array of hymns to sing, as men like Newton and Wesley had done for Protestants. Faith of Our Fathers is one of these (now edited to remove specifically Catholic sentiments), and There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy is another give to us by Faber.

The present hymn was published in 1854. He called it “Pilgrims of the Night,” and Henry Smart named his tune for it Pilgrims, accordingly. Commonly used today, of the author’s original seven stanzas, are CH-1, 3, 4, and 7.

CH-1) Hark! hark, my soul! angelic songs are swelling,
O’er earth’s green fields and ocean’s wave-beat shore:
How sweet the truth those blessèd strains are telling
Of that new life when sin shall be no more.

Angels of Jesus, angels of light,
Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night!

T his is a song that has been roundly criticized for its vagueness and sentimentality. It seems to be about dying and going to heaven. But its flowery words of poetry that obscure the truth more than illuminate it.

Hymn writer John Ellerton (1826-1895) said of the hymn, “We inquire in vain into the meaning of the ‘Pilgrims of the Night.’ He claimed congregations are merely “carried away by the rhythm and musical ring of the lines.” Albert E. Bailey, in The Gospel in Hymns, wrote:

“Sentiment has got the better of thought. We seem to be in that state of semi-consciousness which often precedes dying, and we experience a pleasing hallucination.”

Salvation Army Commissioner, George Scott Railton (1849-1913), went so far as to take the framework of the hymn and totally recast it into a militant Salvationist song, calling for a commitment to the battle for the right. His version says, in part:

Hark, hark, my soul, what warlike songs are swelling
Through all the land and on from door to door;
How grand the truths those burning strains are telling
Of that great war till sin shall be no more.

Onward we go, the world shall hear our singing:
Come guilty souls, for Jesus bids you come;
And through the dark its echoes, loudly ringing,
Shall lead the wretched, lost and wandering home.

The Cyber Hymnal provides still another attempt, by Henry Allon (1818-1892) to take the pattern of Faber’s hymn and give it some kind of clearer evangelical meaning. You can judge the result for yourself, here.

J. R. Watson, in his book An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (p. 298) is a little more positive about Faber’s hymn, though guardedly so. He writes:

“Faber’s emotionalism, and his uninhibited use of such imagery, demonstrates his love of a sentiment that comes close to sentimentality. But his sentiment, however excessive it may seem, touches a tender spot.”

But let’s turn from these comments, and the attempts of others to make a better hymn out of Faber’s, and consider the original. Frederick Faber pictures this life as dark and dangerous. There is a kind of bleak pessimism in some of the stanzas. For example:

CH-2) Darker than night life’s shadows fall around us,
And like benighted men we miss our mark:
God hides Himself, and grace hath scarcely found us,
E’er death finds out his victims in the dark.

From this discouraging view, the author points us to Christ and the Christian gospel, and for the most part the hymn looks forward to the brighter day of eternity. But serious questions about the meaning of some lines may leave seekers bewildered. For instance, what on earth are “faith’s moonbeams” (CH-6)?

The voice of Jesus may sound like distant bells (CH-3), and there may be some kind of “music of the gospel” (CH-4), but what precisely is the message? And what are these angels’ songs the author repeatedly tells us about?

If we cannot learn how it is that Christ provides the answer for sin’s condemnation, through faith in His finished work on Calvary, what hope is there for us?  The heart of the gospel is, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I Jn. 1:7; cf. Jn. 3:16; Acts 16:30-31; Eph. 1:7; I Pet. 2:24; 3:18).

CH-4) Onward we go, for still we hear them singing,
“Come, weary souls, for Jesus bids you come;”
And through the dark, its echoes sweetly ringing,
The music of the gospel leads us home.

CH-6) Cheer up, my soul! faith’s moonbeams softly glisten
Upon the breast of life’s most troubled sea,
And it will cheer thy drooping heart to listen
To those brave songs which angels mean for thee.

As the Apostle Paul says, in another context, “If the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, whowill prepare for battle?” (I Cor. 14:8).

1) Can you overcome the sentimentality of this hymn, and find blessing in it?

2) What other hymns better express our hope of eternal blessing, through Christ?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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