What We Sing is Not What He Wrote: Evolution of "God of the prophets"

Every spring, from New Brunswick Theological Seminary's commencement to dozens of ordinations and installations across the country, organs swell to the strains of toulon, and congregations lift their voices as in prayer, singing "God of the Prophets." This hymn, a special gem of our Reformed tradition, is rehearsed over and over again in celebrations of ministry.

Ironically, that was not the purpose for which it was originally written. When Denis Wortman (1835-1922) composed "God of the Prophets" in October of 1884, he did not conceive of it as a hymn in the liturgical sense—something that is sung by a worshiping congregation. Rather, he sent those memorable lines back to his alma mater (New Brunswick Seminary) as part of a centennial greeting from his class; his contribution is included in the centennial volume under "Regrets."

An accomplished pastor, author, and poet, Wortman produced two books of poetry, quite popular in their day: Reliques of Christ (1888) and The Divine Processional (1903), as well as many other occasional poems. Only one of his poems, however, written for the dedication of Jay Gould's Memorial Church in New York, seems originally intended for singing.

In reading the original text of "God of the Prophets" (version 1), one immediately sees that it is not quite the hymn we remember; there are too many stanzas, some of the declamation is not right for singing, and it is filled with exclusive language about ministers (who were, of course, all male in 1884). It is also filled with the missionary zeal and millenianism so common to the late nineteenth century, especially in the final stanza: "O Mighty Age of prophet-kings, return!"

No matter what the author's intentions were when he wrote these stanzas, "God of the Prophets" soon appeared in The Church Hymnary, a hymnal compiled in 1890 by Edwin Bedell for use primarily in RCA congregations, and in the Episcopal Hymnal of 1892. In both books it was set to the Claude Goudimel arrangement of old 124th, which Bedell called goudimel, but which the world would come to know as toulon. Both hymnals eliminated the second stanza, with, we can assume, Wormian's approval. Over the years "God of the Prophets" was sung only intermittently at New Brunswick Seminary before settling into its place in commencement tradition.

The Presbyterian Hymnal of 1933 was the first to eliminate Wortman's final stanza; the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 followed that example. Both books began to deal with the awkward line "To assure the right and every evil break," but the Episcopalians seemed to be the first to notice that Wortman's fourth stanza suggests that only when the world goes astray do we pass into Christ's life of sacrifice. The editors suggest:

O that with them, the world, so far
astray,
Might pass into Christ's life of
sacrifice!

The Hymnbook, published by several Presbyterian and Reformed denominations in 1955, completely recasts the "prophets" stanza, substituting this entry by John Underwood Stephens:

Anoint them prophets! Bold and
eloquent,
thy whispered word from housetops
to proclaim,
evil to lash with love's pure
chastisement,
the captive soul to free in Jesus' name.

More change than that seems necessary to give Denis Wortman's fervent prayer a useful life into the 21st century. Rejoice in the Lord includes an alteration (see version 2) made by Howard Hageman for use at New Brunswick Seminary and by Norman Kansfield—another member of the Rejoice committee—for similar circumstances at Western Seminary, New Brunswick's sister. Hageman makes a pleasant change in praying for God to "Send them, apostles"; Wortman's "make" never was consistent with the "anoint" of the other stanzas, and, by definition, apostles are people who are sent.

Another effort is the work of Carl P. Daw, Jr., found in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982. He rewrote the "priests" stanza, reflecting Episcopalian teaching on the ordained priesthood:

Anoint them priests! Help them to
intercede
with all thy royal priesthood born of
grace;
through them thy church presents in
word and deed
Christ's one true sacrifice with
thankful praise.

He also used the word "heirs" in the first stanza, including the prophets' daughters as well as sons, and his revision acknowledges that we may-hear God's call more than once.

The Psalter Hymnal Revision Committee liked Daw's improvements, especially over the confused third stanza in the 1959 Psalter Hymnal, which tried to condense the "priests" and "kings" stanzas into one. But they went one step further, changing the pronouns to the first person. In doing so, they also slightly revised Daw's third stanza (with his permission) to expand the notion of the ordained priesthood to include all Christians as heirs of the prophets (version 3). There is something to be said for the Psalter Hymnal's use of first-person imagery; we are all heirs of the prophets.

If the purpose, however, is to carry Denis Wortman's prayer into the present and future (which would seem to be the case, since the versions in both the Psalter and the Hymnal 1982 bear Wortman's name), both attempts fall short. Wortman might well agree that we are all the prophets' heirs, but his prayer was for a specific group of heirs. Furthermore, why use a gender-inclusive term such as "heirs," and yet leave the word "kings" in place? Both versions apparently suffer from having recast not the original text, but the versions of the 1930s-'50s; the ideas of response to God's call and of our promised goal, reflected in Wortman's second and final stanzas, are still lost.

Allow me to offer my own revision, heavily indebted to these others (version 4). I have attempted to retain Wortman's original language and ideas, asking myself how he might have responded to modern theological concerns. It seems to me that "thees" and "thous" are necessary in older hymns, for they serve to remind us that hymnody is a historic witness, and that our song is often the song of our ancestors. My third stanza is a grudging acknowledgment that seven-stanza hymns are unacceptable in our day and age; I hope the longer form can be restored someday.

Mine is but another voice in a century-old dialogue: this poem that was never meant for singing has touched generations of worshipers. May God bless the efforts of all the heirs of this and all authors, that their songs may lift our prayers eloquently into the future.

James L. H. Brumm is pastor of First Reformed Church, South River, New Jersey, and is author of Singing the Lord's Song: A History of the English-Language Hymnals of the RCA (see review on p. 45).

 

Excerpt

Version 1

God of the Prophets! Bless the prophets' sons;
Elijah's mantle o'er Elisha cast;
each age its solemn task may claim but once;
make each a nobler, stronger than the last!

For those who here shall catch thy mystic voice,
and with their: "Here am I; speak Lord,"—shall stand
to do thy bidding, we with thanks rejoice;
God lead them forth to joyous work and grand.

Anoint them Prophets! Make their ears attent
to thy divinest speech; their hearts awake
to human need; their lips make eloquent
t'assure the right and every evil break.

Anoint them Priests! Strong intercessors they
for pardon and for charity and peace!
Ah, if with them the world might pass astray
into the dear Christ's life of sacrifice!

Anoint them Kings! Aye, kingly kings, O Lord!
Anoint them with the spirit of the Son:
Theirs not a jeweled crown, a blood-stained sword;
theirs, by sweet love, for Christ a kingdom won.

Make them Apostles! Heralds of thy Cross,
forth may they go to tell all realms thy grace;
inspired of thee, may they count all but loss,
and stand at last with joy before thy face.

O Mighty Age of prophet-kings, return!
O Truth, O Faith, enrich our urgent time!
Lord Jesus Christ, again with us sojourn;
a weary world awaits thy reign sublime.

—Denis Wortman October, 1884

Version 2

God of the prophets, bless the prophets' heirs
Elijah's mantle o'er Elisha cast;
each age in turn for solemn tasks prepares;
make each one nobler, stronger than the last.

Anoint them prophets! make their ears attend
to thy divinest speech; their hearts awake
to human need; their lips make eloquent
right to enthrone and every evil break.

Anoint them priests! strong intercessors they
for pardon and for charity and peace!
Oh, might with them the world, though gone astray,
pass into Christ's pure life of sacrifice.

Anoint them rulers, gentle rulers, Lord!
Anoint them with the Spirit of thy Son;
theirs not a jeweled crown, a blood-stained sword;
theirs, by strong love, for Christ a kingdom won.

Send them, apostles, heralds of thy cross;
forth may they go to tell all realms thy grace;
inspired of thee, may they count all but loss,
and stand at last with joy before thy face.

—stanzas 1,2, 3, and 5 alt. by Howard Hageman;
stanza 4 alt. by Norman Kansfield

Version 3

God of the prophets, bless the prophets' heirs!
Elijah's mantle o'er Elisha cast:
each age for your own solemn task prepares;
make each one stronger, nobler than the last.

Anoint us prophets! Teach us your intent:
to human need our quickened hearts awake;
fill us with power, our lips make eloquent
for righteousness that shall all evil break.

Anoint us priests! Help us to intercede
with all your royal priesthood born of grace;
through us your church presents in word and deed

a living sacrifice with thanks and praise.

Anoint us kings! Help us do justice, Lord!
Anoint us with the Spirit of your Son:
ours not a monarch's crown or tyrant's sword;
ours by the love of Christ a kingdom won.

Make us apostles, heralds of your cross;
forth may we go to tell all realms your grace:
by you inspired may we count all but loss,
and stand at last with joy before your face.

—stanzas 1, 2,4, & 5 alt. by Psalter Hymnal text committee; stanza 3 by Carl P. Daw, Jr. St. 3 © 1981,

Hope Publishing Co. Al rights reserved.

Used by permission.

Version 4

God of the prophets, bless the prophets' heirs!
Elijah's mantle o'er Elisha cast!
Each age in turn for solemn tasks prepares;
make each one nobler, stronger than the last!

Those, here and now, who catch thy mystic voice,
with "Here am I! Speak, Lord!" shall bravely stand!
As they dare answer, we with thanks rejoice;
God lead them forth to joyous work and grand.

Anoint thy servants, faithful servants, they:
prophets for right, who every evil break;
priests, interceding for a world astray;
rulers who, for their Christ, a kingdom take.

Send them, apostles, heralds of thy cross!
Forth may they go to tell all realms thy grace;
inspired of thee, may they count all but loss,
and stand at last with joy before thy face.

Oh, Mighty Prophet, Priest, and King, return!
With truth and faith enrich our urgent time!
Lord Jesus Christ, again with us sojourn;
a weary world awaits thy reign sublime!

—alt. by James L.H. Brum

June, 19

James Hart Brumm (JHartBrumm@aol.com) is pastor and teacher of Blooming Grove Reformed Church (RCA) in DeFreestville, New York. He is editor of Liturgy Among the Thorns: Essays on Worship in the Reformed Church in America (Eerdmans, 2008). A new collection of his hymns, Rhythms of Praises, has recently been published by Wayne Leupold Editions.