STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS
FROM GREENLAND’S ICY MOUNTAINS
THE TEXT OF THE HYMN
From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain.
What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile:
In vain with lavish kindness
The gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness
Bows down to wood and stone.
Can we, whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has learned Messiah’s Name.
Waft, waft, ye winds, His story,
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till like a sea of glory
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign.
Rev. Reginald Heber, 1819
NOTE– The text is that of Bishop Heber’s manuscript.
THE STORY OF THE HYMN
In February, 1819, a royal letter was issued authorizing a special offering
for foreign missions in all churches and chapels of Great Britain. Whitsunday
of that year fell on the 30th of May, and Dr. Shipley, dean of St. Asaph,
appointed the morning of that day for making the offering in the parish
church of Wrexham, of which he was the vicar. It happened that he had also
arranged for a course of Sunday-evening lectures in his church to begin
that same day. His son-in-law, the Rev. Reginald Heber, had come to Wrexham
to deliver the opening lecture.
In those days the singing of hymns was not authorized in the Church of
England, but they had pushed in, none the less. Heber remarks in one of
his letters that “hardly a collection is made for charitable purposes without
a hymn for the occasion.” But missionary hymns were not then so numerous
as now, and the vicar seems to have been at a loss for one to sing in connection
with the next day’s collection. Yet he had a poet for a son-in-law, and
the son-in-law was in the house; and it occurred to him that a new hymn
might be secured for the occasion. For our knowledge of just what happened
we are dependent upon a printed statement of Thomas Edgworth, a solicitor
of Wrexham. “In the course of the Saturday previous,” Mr. Edgworth says,
“the dean and his son-in-law being together in the vicarage, the former
requested Heber to ‘write something for them to sing in the morning’;
and he retired for that purpose from the table where the dean and a few
friends were sitting, to a distant part of the room. In a short time the
dean inquired, ’What have you written?’ Heber, having then composed the
first three verses, read them over. ‘There, there, that will do very well,’
said the dean. ‘No, no, the sense is not complete,’ replied Heber. Accordingly
he added the fourth verse, and the dean being inexorable to his repeated request
of ‘Let me add another, O let me add another,’ thus completed the hymn...
which has since become so celebrated. It was sung the next morning in Wrexham Church,
the first time.” Tradition says it was sung to the old ballad tune, “’Twas when the
Seas were Roaring.”
Autograph Verses of the Hymn
The hymn had been set up and printed that Saturday evening, to be ready
for the use of the congregation. The original manuscript which served as
“copy” was happily preserved, bearing the scar made by the copy-hook on which
it had been impaled. It was exhibited in 1851 at the World’s Exhibition
in London. It passed into the possession of Dr. Thomas Raffles, of Liverpool,
at one time a hymn writer of some reputation, and also an enthusiastic
collector of autographs. When his collection came to be sold, it excited
much competition, and brought forty-two pounds,– a larger sum than the
amount of that missionary collection at Wrexham Church.
Heber’s hymn made its way quickly. Just after his appointment as Bishop
of Calcutta brought him into general notice, a correspondent sent to The
Christian Observer a copy of the hymn with a letter calling attention to
it as written by the new bishop. The hymn and letter appeared in the number
for February, 1823, and as an edition of the magazine was reprinted in
the United States, it made the hymn known in both countries. On that account
the letter is worth reproducing here. It is hardly less interesting on
its own account as a perfect specimen of that still familiar type of appreciation
which is no less self-conscious than it is generous, and also of a rhetoric
as stilted as the patronage.
“To the Editor of the Christian Observer:
“The following missionary hymn
is so beautiful, considered as poetry, and so honourable as the effusion
of a Christian mind, that I should request its insertion in your pages,
even if it were not the production of a writer whose devout and elevated
muse justly obtained your labours [referring to an earlier review of Heber’s
Palestine]; whose name has since been often mentioned in your pages with
high respect; and whose appointment, to a most important station in the
church of Christ, you have recently announced with a pleasure which is
shared by all who have at heart the moral and spiritual welfare of our
numerous fellow-subjects, native and European, in the East. The hymn having
appeared some time since in print with the name of Reginald Heber annexed,
I can feel no scruple in annexing that name to it on the present occasion.
There is nothing, either in the sentiments or the poetry, but what does
honour to the now Right Reverend prelate, while it must delight every Christian
mind to witness such devout ardour for the extension of ‘Messiah’s Name,’
in a station so eminently important for giving effect to that desire in
all those measures which Christian piety, meekness, and prudence may suggest.
The best service performed by this euphonious patron lay in the fact that
his letter brought the hymn to the attention of Miss Mary W. Howard, of
Savannah, Georgia. She saw the possibilities of Bishop Heber’s hymn, but
knew of no suitable tune that would carry the words, written as they were
in a metre not then much used in hymns. Lowell Mason was at the time a
bank clerk in the same town; but he had already begun the musical career
which was to bring him fame and do so much for congregational singing.
Boston was destined to be the scene of his more conspicuous labors, but
already in Savannah he was teaching a singing-school and leading a choir,
and the year before he had published the pioneer of his long line of tune
books. To him Miss Howard brought the words of this hymn, and he wrote
for it his now famous tune, Missionary Hymn, and printed it as sheet music,
with the legend, “Composed for and Dedicated to Miss Mary W. Howard, of
Savannah, Georgia.” The effect of Mason’s tune has been to make “From
Greenland’s Icy Mountains” the inevitable hymn for all missionary occasions in this
country; and in England, even to this day, the tune is frequently heard
in churches where music of the severer type known as Anglican has come
THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN
When Thackeray, in his Four Georges, had grown weary of flinging his darts
at the padded figure of the First Gentleman of Europe, he turned to “tell
of better gentlemen” of the reign of George IV; among others of “the good
divine, Reginald Heber, as one of the best of English gentlemen,– the charming
poet, the happy possessor of all sorts of gifts and accomplishments, birth,
wit, fame, high character, competence.”
Reginald Heber was born April 21st, 1783, at Malpas, of which parish his
father was rector. He wrote verses from childhood, and in 1800, his first
year at Oxford, gained a prize for the best Latin verse. Three years later,
he won the Newdigate prize by his “Palestine,” one of the few college prize
poems that have taken a place in literature. Sir Walter Scott wrote in
his Journal, March 12th, 1829; “Read Reginald Heber’s journal after dinner.
I spent some merry days with him at Oxford when he was writing his prize poem.
He was then a gay young fellow, a wit and a satirist, and burning for literary
fame. My laurels were beginning to bloom, and we were both madcaps. Who would have
foretold our future lot?”
In 1804 Heber took his degree, spending two years in travel on the Continent.
Ordained in 1807, he was presented by his brother with the family living
of Hodnet. He soon married, and for sixteen years remained the faithful
friend of his people in what he called a halfway situation between a parson
and a squire. Of the beautiful home-life at Hodnet rectory, and the pain
of breaking it up when the call to India came, we catch some glimpses in
the second chapter of Augustus Hare’s Memorials of a Quiet Life. Always
faithful to parish duties, Heber was ardently devoted to literary pursuits.
Besides his poems, he did much editorial work, and was one of the original
staff of writers on the famous Quarterly Review. He wrote also a life of
Jeremy Taylor, and edited an edition of Taylor’s Complete Works which is
still the best. He held, too, a place of his own in the literary society
of the time. But his literary career came to an end with his call to India
when he was only forty years of age.
While at Hodnet many honors came to him, for all men admired him. While
still a young man he was the Bampton lecturer at Oxford, and in 1822 was
elected preacher of Lincoln’s Inn, London. When forty years old he was
offered the appointment of Bishop of Calcutta. Twice he refused for the
sake of wife and child; but he had much of the missionary spirit and an
especial fondness for India, and he finally accepted the call as from God.
On June 16th, 1823, he sailed for the new home, and never again was to
see the old. He began at once the visitation of his vast diocese, which
included all India, Ceylon, the Mauritius, and Australasia. His abilities
and enthusiastic labors made a great mark upon the diocese, but his administration
was very brief. Returning from a service at Trichinopoly, on April 3rd,
1826, he retired to take a cold bath, and half an hour afterward was found
dead in his room by a servant.
In politics Bishop Heber was a Tory, in theology an Arminian, in religious
views a High Churchman. But all his opinions were subject to the law of
charity. He entered into no controversy, and was warmly loved for his beautiful
character, his religious enthusiasm, and his engaging ways. His attention
was turned to hymn writing by the unsatisfactory state of psalmody in the
Church of England. Clergy and people had wearied of metrical psalm versions,
and although hymns had never been authorized, insisted on using them in
church. Heber was ambitious to write hymns that should win the sanction
of the authorities and make part of an authorized hymnal. But the authorities
counseled delay, and his hymn book was first published by his widow in
1827, as Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the
Year. It contained fifty-seven of Heber’s hymns. A considerable number
of these had been printed by him in The Christian Observer between the
years 1811 and 1816. Most of the others first saw the light when his hymn
book came to be printed. To this hymn book there will be occasion to recur
in studying a hymn of Dean Milman. Heber is perhaps the only extensive
hymn writer in the language of whom it may be said that every hymn he wrote
has come into actual use.
SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION
(1) What did the author mean when he insisted on writing a fourth verse
because the sense was not complete without it; just what, in other words,
does that verse add to the structure or thought of the hymn?
(2) In The Hymnal (and here) the hymn is printed as originally written.
Bishop Heber’s allusion in the second verse to the spicy breezes from Ceylon
is both explained and illustrated by a passage in his Journal of a Voyage
to India, where, under the date of September, 1823, he writes: “Though we were
now too far off Ceylon to catch the odors of the land, yet it is, we are assured,
perfectly true that such odors are perceptible to a very considerable distance.
In the Straits of Malacca a smell like that of a hawthorn hedge is commonly experienced;
and from Ceylon, at thirty or forty miles, under certain circumstances, a yet more
agreeable scent is inhaled.” In spite, however, of Bishop Heber’s confirmation of
the appropriateness of his earlier allusion to Ceylon, it remains true that when his
hymns came to be printed in 1827 by his widow, the passage in question was made to read: –
What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o’er Java’s isle;” –
No explanation of the change has ever been made.
In many hymn books the word “each” in the seventh line of the third verse is changed to “earth’s.”
Is there any good reason for either change?
(3) The non-Christian religions are now regarded with a more sympathetic
feeling than in Bishop Heber’s time. Has the growth of this feeling had
any effect upon our estimate of the appropriateness and usefulness of this
hymn? Compare it in this respect with Bishop Coxe’s missionary hymn, “Savior,
Sprinkle Many Nations” (The Hymnal, No. 399).
(4) Bishop Heber lived at a time when English lyrical poetry had a great
development under Walter Scott, Byron, and others. His aim in writing hymns
was to get something of this new lyrical grace and charm into the hymns
of the Church. Of his original hymns there are nine in The Hymnal (see
its Index of Authors). Do they show that he succeeded in his purpose? One
of them Lord Tennyson thought the greatest hymn in the language. In the
opinion of others Heber’s style was somewhat too ornate and flowing for
(5) The hymns of the Church may be called the flowers of the Church’s history.
The hymns of any epoch grow out of the spiritual life of that epoch, and
express its best thought and feeling. Of this Bishop Heber’s hymn is an
example. The hymn itself is the outgrowth of that missionary movement in
England whose influences had surrounded him while growing up. The movement
arose with the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Baptist Missionary
Society was founded in 1792, the London Missionary Society in 1795; within
the Church of England an active Society for Missions to Africa was started
in 1799, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel began a new
career with the new century. It was only in 1813 that the obstacles to
missionary work in Heber’s beloved India were overcome and the way declared
open by Parliament. The aroused conscience and quickened pulse of England
have a witness in this and other hymns of the time. And is it not somewhat
surprising that the increased missionary enthusiasm of the latter part
of the century did not more freely embody itself in hymns that should gain
the ear and heart of the Church? The new missionary literature has attained
great proportions, but in it all hymnody plays a rather inconspicuous part.
Yet there would seem to be room in our hymnals for fresh missionary hymns;
and without increasing the size of the books, from which, one would think,
some few of the more prosaic hymns on that theme might go without serious