On Nathan Brown’s ‘The Missionary’s Call’ and Other Hymns

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Nathan Brown, pioneer missionary to Assam, whose several talents included hymn writing. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

I have just finished preparing the manuscript of a new edition of In a Far Country (1911), Harriette Bronson Gunn’s biography of her father, Miles Bronson. Some consider this kind of work academic drudgery but I liked it. I particularly liked doing the annotations. I did similar work on an early Indian English novel some years ago. Then I was working in the very well-stocked library of a leading university. Hence I had all the books I could possibly want at my disposal. My current setting is rather different. But the internet is a great leveller. I did have misgivings about using Wikipedia but allowed myself to be reassured by a review in the TLS which described the Wikipedia entry on the ancient Indo-Greek kingdom as the ‘most reliable overview of Indo-Greek history’ currently available. YouTube was of great help as well, giving me access to musical sources and information I would not have had otherwise.

In the Introduction to the book (out, hopefully, in December), I point out that In a Far Country belongs to a now forgotten tradition of evangelical and missionary writing that flourished in the nineteenth century. Protestants in America (and in Britain) created their own print culture by writing and publishing sermons, tracts, memoirs, biographies, and hymns. So I should not have been surprised by the book’s allusions to a number of hymns.  Many years ago, when I first read Ahmed Ali’s Twilight in Delhi, I was struck by the novel’s continual allusions to ghazals. Ghazals were integral to old Delhi Muslim life; even beggars seem to have recited them. However, from a literary point of view, the hymn, unlike the ghazal, is regarded as a lowly form. This is because hymns are perceived to be conventional, both in sentiment and form, rather than creative. Poetry, the argument goes, must be imaginative.Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poems are religious but innovative and so qualify as poems.

Perhaps there is also a feeling that the religious piety expressed in hymns is hypocritical. After all, the hymn composer John Newton, who wrote ‘Amazing Grace, so greatly loved by Americans including, ironically, by African-Americans, was a slave trader. He became a born-again Christian in 1748. Newton captained a succession of slave ships till 1754, when serious illness forced his retirement from seafaring. He became a pastor in 1764 but expressed condemnation of the slave trade only in 1788. Despite this context, it is difficult not to be moved by the emotional power of this hymn. Religious leaders like John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, have known the importance of hymns in religion and worship. Charles Wesley, John’s younger brother, is said to have written over 6000 hymns; they were often edited by John. ‘Jesus, Lover of my soul’ has been called the finest hymn in English.

Hymns can be disrespectful in the cultural and other assumptions they make. One of the hymns referred to In a Far Country is ‘From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,’ written in 1819 by Reginald Heber, who later became become Bishop of Calcutta.  Gandhi found the line ‘every prospect pleases, and only man is vile’ offensive. Speaking at the Calcutta YMCA in 1925, he said, ‘My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary … [Man] is not vile. He is as much a seeker after truth as you and I are, possibly more so.’

Nathan Brown (1807-86), the first Baptist missionary in Assam, wrote a well-regarded hymn, ‘The Missionary’s Call.’ In The Whole World Kin (1890), his biography written by Elizabeth W. Brown, we read that it was originally a poem, written spontaneously when Brown was nineteen years old, following the inspirational commencement speech made by the President of Williams College, Edward Dorr Griffin (1770-1837). It was sent to the Missionary Magazine and Brown made ‘its acceptance or rejection …a token from providence whether to offer himself for the foreign field or not.’ Though it was not accepted, Brown’s zeal to be a missionary did not diminish. In 1830, Brown published it in The Vermont Telegraph, a religious paper of which he was the editor. The complete poem is published in The Whole World Kin. The shorter, hymn version, set to music (by Edward Howe, Jr.), is printed as an appendix. There is this (slightly) variant version on the internet:

The Missionary’s Call

    My soul is not at rest.

There comes a strange and secret whisper to my spirit

like a dream of night that tells me I am on enchanted ground.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    Why live I here?

The vows of God are on me and I may not stop to play with shadows

or pluck earthly flowers till I my weary pilgrimage have done.

             The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

    And I will go!

I may no longer doubt to give up my friends and idle hopes

and every tie that binds my heart to thee my country!

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

      Henceforth it matters not

If storm or sunshine be my earthly lot, bitter or sweet my cup; I only pray,

‘God make me holy, and my spirit nerve for the stern hour of strife.’

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

            comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

 

        And when I come to stretch me for the last,

in unattended agony beneath the cocoa’s shade

it will be sweet that I have toiled for other worlds than this.

            The voice of my departed Lord, ‘Go teach all nations,’

             comes on the night air and wakes mine ear.

In 1806, five Williams College students had held the famous Haystack Prayer Meeting which gave rise to the American foreign missionary movement. There was intense interest in foreign missions in New England. The Whole World Kin tells us that The Vermont Telegraph carried the latest news from Burma to the villages and farm-houses of Vermont. Burma was the largest foreign field of the American Baptists missionaries, established by the first and foremost missionary couple Adoniram Judson (1788-1850) and his wife Ann Judson (1789-1826), and there were calls to send out more missionaries to the field. My internet research turned up an essay ‘God and Man in Baptist Hymnals 1784-1844’ by David Singer. Singer argues that hymns popularized and brought to the average church-goer the sophisticated religious concepts that were otherwise the preserve of the theological and intellectual elite. Hymns also reflect doctrinal changes. He traces the change from ‘a strict Calvinism to Arminianism’ in the hymns produced during his period of study, and notes the rise of the number of missionary hymns in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Nathan Brown’s hymn is obviously a part of this upsurge of hymn writing.

In Bronson’s biography, Harriette relates an incident illustrating the tribal love of music. A group of missionaries reached a locality where no white man had yet penetrated. ‘They were confronted by a bristling array of spears, each tipped by deadly poison, and pointed straight toward them.’ One of the missionaries began to play ‘Jesus, lover of my soul’ on his violin. The ‘wild hill men’ were entranced and lowered their spears. ‘And thus,’ writes Harriette, ‘through power of Christian song and melody, the gospel obtained a lodgment in this hitherto inaccessible part of the mountains.’ Several internet sources (here is one) identify the missionary as EP Scott who worked among the Karbis. You can see the evolution of this discourse of the tribal love of music in accounts of the tradition of church music in the Northeast and the success of the Shillong Chamber Choir.

Wikipedia, that modern fount of all knowledge, tells us that as of September 2016 the Bible has been has been wholly and partly translated into 554 and 2,932 languages respectively. It is unlikely we will ever have a reliable figure for all the hymns composed. Sites like hymnary.org and cyberhymnal.org exist and are useful. But these data bases are confined to Western hymns. Accounting for all the hymns translated into indigenous languages as well as composed in them is not impossible but it would be a challenging task requiring the labours of a global team of experts and informants. William Ward (the Assam Baptist missionary, not to be confused with his famous Serampore namesake) is just one of the several hymnists who composed hymns in Assamese. Ward revised the Assamese hymn book called Khristio Dharmageet for a new edition. According to Guwahati Baptist Church pastor Aziz-ul-Haq, Ward added scores of original and translated hymns. In the fourth edition of the book, published in 1890, sixty three hymns were Ward’s.

‘I get one of these hymns in mind,’ wrote Ward in a 1873 letter to Bronson,  ‘and it goes on grinding when I lie awake, or when I wake in the morning, or at odd intervals of other work.’ Ward’s description of hymn composition is not different from the accounts we have of poets describing the creative process of poetic composition. Hymns have been called the ‘poor man’s poetry.’ Perhaps they help articulate feelings and experiences that the average church-goer might not have been able to express on his or her own. I was moved by the story of Charlotte Elliott (1789-1871), the English poet and hymn writer, who was an invalid for the last fifty years of her life. She wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am’ in 1835, and called it her spiritual autobiography. (It was adopted by the famous evangelist Billy Graham as his theme song.) I would not like to disrespect the feelings hymns evoke or dishonour the sincerity behind some justly famous hymns.

Annotating In a Far Country (and reading up on evangelical and missionary print culture) has made me freshly aware of the importance of religion in literature. A list of all the writers influenced by Christianity would have to include Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Blake, Coleridge, Tennyson, Emily Dickinson, TS Eliot, Frost, and Auden (to mention only poets). That is a roll call of the greatest writers in British and American literature. I have always delighted in telling my students about under-theorized or overlooked genres like the essay or the letter (also known as ‘epistle’ back in the day when email did not exist). For me, hymns are a new discovery. Sadly, I do not have the time or the expertise or the resources to pursue this interest. But for a day or two I was a happy child playing on the beach of a vast sea, the roaring waves in the distance bringing me a dim awareness of the unplumbed depths beneath.

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