Nov 13, 2023

Henry Greenleaf Whittier


No other hymn in the Christian repertoire originates from a poem about taking drugs. “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” was derived from a longer poem by Henry Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), a Quaker active in the abolitionist cause. Whittier’s poem with the curious title, “The Brewing of Soma,” first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1872. Soma was a sacred drink employed in the Vedic Religion in India, a forerunner to Hinduism. Vedic priests would extract liquid from forest plants to create an intoxicating drink. It likely had hallucinogenic properties, with the addition of cannabis and opium poppies. The drink was used to whip up religious enthusiasm, resulting in expressions of frenzied worship. Whittier spoke critically of their “drunken joy” and “sacred madness.” No doubt he also had the excessive exuberance of revivalist camp meetings on the frontier in his sights. The last seven stanzas of his poem shifted to “deeper reverence” and “simple trust,” qualities highly valued in the Quaker tradition. The hymn begins with confession, “forgive our foolish ways” and then asks God to “reclothe us in our rightful minds.” Everything in the hymn centers on God’s serenity–“Sabbath rest,” “calm of hills above,” “silence of eternity,” “dews of quietness” and “voice of calm.” Whittier was no mere quietist. He was tireless in the anti-slavery cause for 20 years. The office of the abolitionist paper of which he was editor was once torched by a pro-slavery mob. Whittier showed his Biblical hand at the close of the hymn, “Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still, small voice of calm,” a reference to God’s understated appearance to Elijah (1 Kings 19.12). God doesn’t typically shout, God whispers. It causes me to wonder about the hype and boasts that accompany some of our Christian gatherings.  Whittier’s hymn leads us into prayer:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
forgive our foolish ways,
reclothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives thy service find,
in deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard
beside the Syrian sea
the gracious calling of the Lord,
let us, like them, without a word
rise up and follow thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
where Jesus knelt to share with thee
the silence of eternity,
interpreted by love!

Drop thy still dews of quietness,
till all our strivings cease,
take from our souls the strain and stress,
and let our ordered lives confess
thy beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
thy coolness and thy balm,
let sense be dumb, let flesh retire,
speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm!

Rev. Dr. Peter James served 42 years as the senior of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Vienna, VA — 21 years in the 20th century and 21 years in the 21st century. He retired in 2021 and now serves as Pastor-in-Residence at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Even as a pastor, prayer came slowly to Pete. Read Pete’s story.