Holmes at Last

There are many areas in which the “green” hymnal is superior to its predecesor. It has better indexes, lots of added information, and the mixed blessing of simpler, more playable hymns. However, in the vitally important category of hymn-texts-penned-by-parents-of-Supreme-Court-justices, it is sadly lacking.

I refer, of course, to old hymn number 287, “Lord of All Being, Throned Afar.” The hymn’s text was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., the Unitarian poet and man of letters whose son would go on to become one of the great Justices in this country’s history.

The senior Holmes, Dean of the Harvard Medical School, was a leading physician and intellectual of his time and friend to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Early in his life, he tried law as a profession but found it unsatisfying. (The disinclination was not hereditary; as mentioned above, his son Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. would become a hugely important legal scholar and later a great Supreme Court justice.)

Old hymn 287 is set to a majestic tune in the key of A major. The music, by Leroy Robertson, is simple and straightforward, devoid of syncopation and almost without melisima, with a melody line that easily fits within a single octave, and that mostly stays within the span of a fourth (E through A).

The hymn text is also deceptively simple:

Lord of all being, throned afar,
thy glory flames from sun and star;
center and soul of every sphere,
yet to each loving heart how near!

Sun of our life, thy quickening ray
sheds on our path the glow of day;
star of our hope, thy softened light
cheers the long watches of the night.

Our midnight is thy smile withdrawn,
our noontide is thy gracious dawn,
our rainbow arch thy mercy’s sign;
all, save the clouds of sin, are thine.

Lord of all life, below, above,
whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,
before thy ever-blazing throne
we ask no luster of our own.

Grant us thy truth to make us free,
and kindling hearts that burn for thee,
till all thy living altars claim
one holy light, one heavenly flame.

Of this hymn, Cornwall (1963) writes: “It is a cluster of metaphors, each suggesting an aspect of religion — the sun, the star, the moon, the night. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the author of the hymn, said of it ‘Forget for the moment the differences in the hues of truth we look at through our human prisms, and join in singing (inwardly) this hymn to the source of light we all need to lead us, and the warmth which alone can make us brothers.”

The hymn long predates the Unitarian-Universalist merger of 1961. As such, it would be erroneous to connect it directly to the loose strands of Universalism that various of Joseph Smith’s family members embraced, which were (to my understanding) quite distinct from the organized Unitarianism of Holmes. Nevertheless, there is some thematic similarity between the hymn text and the Universalism of Joseph’s family. In particular, the idea that truth transcends sectarian differences is one that is evident in the hymn text, and also seems to be a theme of the Universalism that touched Joseph Smith’s family (see, e.g., Rough Stone Rolling at 17). (This idea is also one that is alive in present Unitarian Universalism). Perhaps for this reason, the text of the hymn seems to resonate with some underlying themes of Mormonism. Personally, I find the last verse beautifully reminiscent of some of the themes that I like best in Mormonism:

Grant us thy truth to make us free, and kindling hearts that burn for thee,
till all thy living altars claim, one holy light, one heavenly flame.

5 comments for “Holmes at Last

  1. March 4, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    Me being Serious: Thanks Kaimi for an informative and uplifting post

    Me being not so serious:
    “However, in the vitally important category of hymn-texts-penned-by-parents-of-Supreme-Court-justices, it is sadly lacking”.

    reminds me of watching a baseball game and hearing the announcers consistently throwing out the obscurest of obscure facts, “You know, Jose Garcia has the third highest on-base-percentage of any Dominican Republican whose initials, when assigned correlating numbers, are the same as the year that said player’s team has had a winning percentage over .500 without using a designated hitter more than 3 times in a night game”)

    It’s just a shame that the parents of Supreme Court justices haven’t been more lyrically prolific. It’s those confounded video games I tell ya.

  2. March 4, 2006 at 11:33 pm

    I’m still upset that “Amazing Grace” isn’t in there. Beautiful song, musically and lyrically.

  3. March 5, 2006 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for this post, Kaimi! As a post-Mormon Unitarian Universalist, I always appreciate finding connections like this because most people can’t imagine anything that these traditions have in common.

    There are some very interesting connections, though. Ann Bressler’s book “The Universalist Movement in America” looks at early Universalist theology and finds in it a very strong critique of early American individualism. She argues that salvation, for the early Universalists, was collective and inherently social. Before reading your post, I hadn’t thought about whether her argument might draw a connection between Universalism and Joseph Smith’s kingdom-building view of salvation. I knew that Joseph Smith Sr. had been baptized in a Universalist church, but I know very little about how Universalist theology might have shaped his own faith. I have thought for a long time that Joseph Smith developed a kind of sacramental universalism in the endowment ceremony, opening heaven to everyone.

    The Unitarian connections are harder to draw because there aren’t, to my knowledge, any historical connections between the early American Unitarians and the first few generations of Mormons. What there is, though, is the Campbellite cousin of both movements and its emphasis on restorationism. “American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity” by Paul Conkin points to some of these connections and shows how popular interest in “uncorrupted” New Testament Christianity characterized the Campbellites (among them Sidney Rigdon, if I’m remembering correctly), the Mormons, and many of the first generation of Unitarians. They all came up with different forms of “pure” or primitive Christianity, but their confidence that they could find and restore the simplicity of the original gospel animated their movements.

    The Unitarian-Mormon resonances I’ve always found more intriguing are the ones I don’t have an historical explanation for. These include a shared tendency toward perfectionism and personal progression; an ultimate optimism about human nature and a rejection of the doctrine of original sin; and an embrace of the idea of “continuing revelation.” These general ideas are expressed in radically different ways in the two traditions, but that’s what I tell baffled UUs when they learn I was a Mormon before joining a Unitarian church: I saw familiar themes. Sterling McMurrin, of course, had put a liberal gloss on those Mormon themes long ago, and I had read his book, so perhaps he made those connections explicit for me.

    As for Holmes’s hymn, I’m sorry to report that it has dropped out of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, too. It last appeared in the 1964 hymnal, but was left out of the 1993 one. If you’re visiting Boston, stop by King’s Chapel on the Freedom Trail. Inside the 1754 church you’ll find a beautiful monument to Holmes Sr. in the northeast corner of the sanctuary; he was a member there. (Justice Joseph Story was another member of King’s Chapel, by the way.) You can even sing his hymn there because the congregation hasn’t adopted the newer denominational hymnal.

    A personal note before I end this ridiculously long comment: On the Sunday closest to July 24, 1997, the congregation at King’s Chapel sang “Come, Come Ye Saints” in honor of the anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, and the minister introduced the hymn by describing it as a “true American psalm.” I was there that Sunday, and was deeply moved to see my family heritage celebrated by the Unitarians, my chosen faith.

  4. Kaimi Wenger
    March 5, 2006 at 11:34 pm


    Thank you for your comment. I agree that modern Unitarian-Universalism and Mormonism seem to have some unexplained thematic similarities, and they’re wonderful ones. (I once listened to a UU friend wax eloquent about the progressiveness and inclusiveness of the doctrine of baptism for the dead). I observe these similarities from my own side of the ecumenical aisle, and it’s very nice to hear your similar observations from the other side.

    The “Come, Come Ye Saints” story is wonderful. The willingness to see truth and beauty in many different religious traditions is, for my money, possibly the best thing about Unitarianism. And thanks for the tip about King’s Chapel. I don’t know when I’ll next be in Boston, but I’ll put this on my list of things to do when I’m next in town.

    (And the fact that UU congregations can choose their hymnal is a fascinating detail. I wonder how that rule would go over in Mormonism.)


    Agreed; I wish that were in the hymnal.

  5. Lawrence
    March 6, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for the fine post. An excellent anthem also by the senior Holmes is, “Thou Gracious God whose Mercy Lends”. the thoughts and words are sublime and a Mack Wilberg arrangement is especially nice with the typical big Wilberg ending. Our local chorale (96 voices) sang an entire program of Wilberg arrangements including the above which choked me up at rehearsals as well as in performance. It was especially nice with flute intro and interludes but with accompaniment on a world class organ. Wilberg conducted the program with Richard Elliot at the organ. The words express just about everything we should express in a prayer. I greatly appreciate the variety of posts on T&S. I’m a relative newcomer to the site and find much of value and interest.

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