Songs of the Church – More Poetic Influences

My formative years were strongly linked to the music of the church. A typical week started with Sunday school, where we learned those innocent gospel tunes such as “Jesus Loves Me,” or “The Wise Man Built His House upon the Rocks” and so on. The formal church service followed and again the evening worship hour. Many times I attended Wednesday evening prayer services. Confirmation, choir, youth activities, vacation bible school and business meetings were part of the calendar, with nearly every activity incorporating songs of the church.

I learned to love the words, paying attention to them during the sermons, which I could not hear because of a hearing loss. But in the hymn books, I had the words in front of me. Sometimes the music score enhanced a song like “It is Well with My Soul.” Other times the sounds in the poem were enough. I loved their common meter—its quiet comfort, illustrated by one of my favorite hymns, Beautiful Savior: “Fair are the meadows, fair are the woodlands / robed in flowers of blooming spring.” Molly Peacock comments on this quality of quiet rhythm in her illuminating book, How to Read a Poem: “It clears the air,” she says, “allowing us to breathe with the deep and regular inhalations and exhalations that sustain life.” (p.28)

It is difficult to point to a favorite genre of hymns or gospel songs. But I think a tattered little booklet that sits on my bookshelf gives away my love for Hymns of the Scandinavian Heritage (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1973). I remember sitting in church next to my children’s paternal grandfather, Herb Liljegren, and closing my eyes in order to concentrate on his nice, bass voice singing, “O wonderful day that soon may be here! / O beautiful hope the pilgrim to cheer.” Lina Sandell (1832 – 1903), a prolific hymn writer from Sweden, has several representative songs in that old booklet of mine. She was influenced by her country’s pietistic movement which, among several other characteristics, stressed a personal and emotional relationship to Jesus. A long-time favorite of mine, illustrates this point: “Thy holy wings, dear Savior, spread gently over me; /And thru the long night watches, I’ll rest secure in thee.

In preparing this post for my website—I consulted a paper on Pietism that I wrote in 1967 for my history professor, Ross Paulson, at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. I had forgotten the emphasis Pietists placed upon hymn-writing—poem/songs that expressed a faith in a personal God who was also a Father. From the late 1600s to the late 1800s, this movement was as vibrant as it was complicated. My intent here is not to emphasize the polemics of this movement as much as it is to showcase certain hymns that had an influence upon my young life. Little did I know that the radicalism and grace stirred up by this movement would provide a deep reservoir of creativity received through the Norwegian heritage of my mother, Catherine Pedersen. In her honor, and on the anniversary of my 72nd birthday, I quote one last poem/song of Hans A. Brorson (1694-1764), set to the music of an old Norwegian folk tune: “Who is this host arrayed in white like thousand snow-clad mountains bright, / that stands with palms and sings its psalms before the throne of light?” Always—I wonder this question as I receive the host and wine at Sunday worship.

© July 30, 2012 by Alice M. Azure