With Joy Her Spirit Sings

The Music of Rae E. Whitney

This is the first of several articles by David Music spotlighting contemporary American hymn writers.

Rae E. Whitney was born on May 21, 1927, in Chippenham, Wilts, England. She received her B.A. with honors in English (1948) and a certificate in education (1949) from the University of Bristol. She taught secondary school English and religion in Oxfordshire and Gloucester until 1958, then worked ecumenically as a resident secretary of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius in London. She met Clyde E. Whitney, the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, on a trip to Italy in 1960, and they were married in her hometown the following New Year’s Eve. They made their home in Nebraska, where she assisted Clyde in his ministry until his death in 1992.

Rae has written hymns most of her life, but her production increased significantly in the late 1970s. By 2006 she had penned some 500 texts. Many of these have appeared in three single-author collections: With Joy Our Spirits Sing (1995), the two-volume set Fear Not, Little Flock (2006, 2007), and Under the Fig Tree (2007), all issued by Selah Publishing Company. The poem of hers that has been used most widely thus far in hymnals is “Lord God, you now have set your servant free” (25), a paraphrase of the Nunc Dimittis. (In this article, song numbers in parentheses refer to the collection Fear Not, Little Flock; the hymns are numbered consecutively across the two volumes.)

One of the characteristic features of Whitney’s lyrics is their biblicism. Some of her texts are straightforward paraphrases of Scripture or retellings of Bible stories, such as the ballad-like “Young Mary Lived in Nazareth” based on Luke 1-2 (1), or the recounting of three parables from Luke 15 in “It Was God Who Ran to Greet Him” (22). In some cases, she amplifies the scriptural passage by interpolating commentary into it, as in the first stanza of “Come to Me, All Burdened People” (88): the seventeen words in the King James Version of Matthew 11:28 are expanded to forty-six, with the author identifying the “weary and heavy-laden” as “those whose sins are unconfessed or whose lives have lost their purpose,” and providing similar expansion on the idea of “rest.” The hymns also contain frequent passing references to Bible verses, such as “Christ has called us friends, not servants” (66), in which only the first line is directly related to John 15:15.

A further hallmark of Whitney’s writing is her penchant for producing a striking opening line. The alliterative “Myrrh-Bearing Mary from Magdala Came” (24) fairly trips off the tongue, while “Give Praise for God’s Strange Gift of Pain” (82) and “Before the Earth Was Tossed in Space” (84) grab the readers’ and singers’ attention and make them want to find out what is coming next. Some texts begin with a touch of humor, such as “Hey, each day, do you wake with a yawning,/‘O Good Lord, what a horrible morning!’” Another example of a light-hearted approach can be found in “Make Music from Unlikely Things” (60), with its references to playing music on “a sauce pan lid” and creating a picture that uses “a dust ball underneath a bed.” But these jaunty lines always lead to a spiritual lesson: “Hey, Each Day” suggests that when we awake in the morning we should “read his holy Word,” “praise and pray, learn my orders for today”; “Make Music from Unlikely Things” calls upon singers to seek Jesus in the “unlikely” things of life.

While some of Whitney’s hymns are relatively straightforward (“Christmas has come! The Child is born! There’s joy in Bethlehem this night” (3)), an important feature of many of them is their inventive exploration of paradox, simile, metaphor, and vivid imagery. This is especially characteristic of texts dealing with the Incarnation, such as “The Lamb Will Be Our Shepherd” (77), the first line of which sets the reader/hearer/singer up for the paradoxes to follow: “the child will be our king; the boy will be our teacher, the priest our offering,” and so on. The second stanza paraphrases the Magnificat: “The maiden will be mother, the mighty ones laid low; the humble will be honored, dire want the rich will know.”

The first line of “Light Born from Light, to Give Us Light” (14) not only makes a compelling opening for the hymn but communicates the mystery of the “Light of the world” shining in the darkness. The text that follows in Fear Not, Little Flock, “Sunday’s Palms Are Wednesday’s Ashes” (15) notes the irony of the Palm Sunday branches of the previous year becoming the ashes for the beginning of the next Lenten season.

Rae Whitney's hymns are a worthwhile investment in helping us “Take up the song and sing the praise of God.”

Concern is sometimes voiced over Christmas hymns that do not “tell the whole story”; that is, they focus on the birth of Jesus but not on the reason for his birth. “Christmas Has Its Cradle” (18) deals directly with this issue by effectively balancing the incarnation and the crucifixion/resurrection:

Christmas has its cradle, where a baby cried;
Did the lantern’s shadow show him crucified?
Did he foresee darkly his life’s willing loss?
Christmas has its cradle: Easter has its cross.

The idea is further elaborated in the closing lines of the second stanza: “Had his Father warned him, none would grant him room/Save in the Christmas cradle and in the Easter tomb?”

One of the most remarkable of Rae Whitney’s texts is her Epiphany hymn “That King Before Whose Majesty” (9), which expresses the wonder that God could take on human flesh. The first two stanzas are based on a poem from the fourth-century hymn writer Ephraim the Syrian. This hymn can be sung to a tune with an 8.8.8.8 meter, such as CHICKAHOMINEY.

That King, before whose majesty
The fire-bright angels tremble still,
Is now a babe in Mary’s arms,
And subject to a mother’s will.

Earth is his footstool, yet her home
Is all the universe he sees;
The Lord of Lords—a little child—
Explores his world on hands and knees.

How new the helplessness of God!
The action, terrifying, bold!
And how prophetic were those gifts
Of myrrh and frankincense and gold!

For, when the Wise Men worshipped him
And offered presents from the East,
Such gifts paid homage to a king
Who is both sacrifice and priest.

At Christ’s profound humility
Both earth and heaven in wonder gaze;
This Child, the Incarnate Word of God,
Is worthy of all highest praise!
—Words: Rae Whitney © 1994 Selah Publishing Company, Inc.

This is one of the few hymns that deal with a significant gap in the gospels—the time between Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and the coming of the Wise Men, which biblical scholars believe might have occurred as much as two years later. Here we encounter Jesus as a toddler, who “explores his world on hands and knees” (note the double meaning of “his world,” relating back to the first line of the stanza, “Earth is his footstool”). The vividness of the language in the hymn is astonishing: the angels are “fire-bright,” Mary’s home is “all the universe [Jesus] sees,” God is helpless, the king is both the “sacrifice” and the “priest.”

New tunes have been written for many of Whitney’s hymns, but a number of texts are also in common hymnic meters and can be sung to already-familiar melodies. For example, “That King, Before Whose Majesty” (in Long Meter) can be sung to O WALY, WALY, while “Christmas Has Its Cradle” (6.5.6.5.D) fits well with KING'S WESTON, and “Young Mary Lived in Nazareth” (Common Meter Doubled) to FOREST GREEN or KINGSFOLD.

Rae Whitney’s hymns are imaginative, memorable, and well worth further exploration. They are a worthwhile investment in helping us—as one of her lyrics puts it—“Take up the song and sing the praise of God” (81).

(Note: All lines and stanzas quoted in this article are © Selah Publishing Company and are used by permission. Reprints permitted with a license from CCLI, OneLicense.net or LicenSingonline.org)

David Music is professor of church music at Baylor University, Waco, Texas.