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Our midnight is thy smile withdrawn,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.