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Hymns of the Faith: When Morning Gilds the Skies

Series: Radio Series: Hymns of the Faith

Radio Lecture by J. Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, and Bill Wymond on Sep 21, 2008

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Hymns of the Faith
“When Morning Gilds the Skies”

A Presentation of First Presbyterian Church

Jackson, Mississippi

With

Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, and Dr. Bill Wymond

Dr. Wymond: Good morning! This is “Hymns of the Faith,” brought to you by Jackson's First Presbyterian Church. The minister of the First Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Stay tuned for “Hymns of the Faith.”… And now here with “Hymns of the Faith” is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Thank you, Bill Wymond. This is Ligon Duncan. It's a joy to be with you and with Derek this morning on “Hymns of the Faith,” and we come to one of my favorite morning hymns.

It's a nineteenth century hymn, just barely into the nineteenth century, and it originally was in German but was translated in the middle part of the nineteenth century into English. I think it became instantly popular in both England and in America. I love the tune to this hymn; I think many of the folks in our listening audience will recognize it immediately. Why don't we just go ahead and hear the beautiful tune to When Morning Gilds the Skies right now! [Dr. Wymond plays.]

Bill, we often use that for an opening hymn on Sunday mornings, and the text itself of course lends itself to that. It talks about the break of day and our hearts awakening with cries of praise to Jesus Christ, and so it makes perfect sense for a morning hymn. But the poetry of this hymn is very flowery in comparison to some of the other hymns that we have recently studied.

For instance, we recently studied together the hymn Give to Our God Immortal Praise, and Isaac Watts’ hymn, actually a Psalm paraphrase, from right at a hundred years earlier. Let's say the German of this hymn was written about 1800; Watts is writing Give to Our God Immortal Praise in about 1719, 1720; and then this hymn is being translated in the middle of the Victorian era into English, and it bears the marks of that kind of flowery Victorian prose, though I think not inappropriately so. I was looking at the text a while ago, and it's actually very clear. Through the poetry is flowery, it's very clear. If you’ll just pause for a few moments to think about what's being said, the text moves systematically and logically through a variety of situations in which we ought to cry out with our hearts, “May Jesus Christ be praised!” For instance, as flowery as the opening line is —

“When morning gilds the skies, my heart awaking cries:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

Well, it's simply saying when the sun comes up in the morning, my heart awakes with the cry of “Jesus Christ be praised.”

“Alike at work and prayer to Jesus I repair:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

Whether I'm working or I'm praying, I'm going to Jesus with the praise, “May Jesus Christ be praised.”

So actually as you work through the hymn, as flowery as the poetry can be, it has a very consistent and clear and sort of compounding message.

Derek, the translator of this song from the German is a gentleman named Edward Caswall. Do you want to tell us a little bit about him?

Dr. Thomas: Yes. Caswall, of course, was a member of what has now become known as the Oxford Movement, the most well-known figure of which of course is Cardinal Newman of Lead, Kindly Light fame, a movement in the Church of England in the nineteenth century back to Rome, back to what they saw as the true church and the mother church. So the reintroduction into what was essentially the Protestant Church of England, the themes of Mariolatry especially. And Edward Caswall was ordained — and I think within the same year resigned his orders in the Church of England and announced that he had become a Roman Catholic. And I think he spent a number of years in the same church as Cardinal Newman. I think I'm right in saying that. Yes. He was made a priest in the congregation of the Oratory, which Cardinal Newman had established in Birmingham, a position he continued to hold until his death in 1878.

We know Caswall from what is one of my all-time favorite hymns (again, it's not his hymn; it's a translation of a hymn), “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee [with sweetness fills my breast]” which comes from de nomine Jesu of Bernard of Clairvaux, from the medieval period. And it's one of those hymns I often quote to myself. I just love the sentiment of the hymn. And this one, too. There's nothing remotely Catholic or any aspect of Mariolatry in this hymn.

Dr. Duncan: …very direct in its address to Jesus Christ, both of those texts, interestingly, which — and I'm not sure of the origin of the German text…you may be telling us about that in a moment — but it is interesting that you do have that strand even in medieval Roman Catholic piety of direct address to Christ. It's not always via the saints or through Mary. You will have in… Bernard (who Calvin, I guess, called his “favorite monk”) will have some beautiful hymns directly to Jesus Christ, and this text is that way, as well.

Dr. Thomas: And you know, who of us…well, I'm presuming, of course, but the line

“When sleep her balm denies, my silent spirit sighs:

May Jesus Christ be praised”

…I can't say I've repeated those words when sleep has been denied me; I've reproved myself later for not having said that when sleep was denied me! But it's just a wonderful, very spiritual sentiment to keep Jesus ever present in our thoughts and in our mind, and to constantly praise Him.

Dr. Duncan: You know, I'm reminded when I look at the text of the hymn, the late and famous African-American evangelist and pastor, E.V. Hill, had been taught by his grandmother, I think, that the first thing he was to do when his eyes opened and his head was on the pillow in the morning was to say, “Thank You, Jesus.” And the same sentiment is here, that at every point at every stage of the day, the cry of our hearts is to be “May Jesus Christ be praised.” And you’re right, Derek! I thought the same thing. When I can't sleep at night, it would have been a lot more productive to praise Christ than to mutter things under my breath about my sleeplessness! It's a very effective exhortation.

Dr. Thomas: You know, I said about WARRINGTON, the tune to Give to Our God Immortal Praise, when we spoke about it, and I've said it about a number of them now, that again this is a tune that is “church” to me. It reminds me of church. It's a very simple tune. I love the way it starts. I suppose if we were pedantic about it there are some words in here which are not common words in the English language today. I suppose….like “To gild the sky…” I imagine if you were to quiz people what does it mean to gild the sky, I'm not sure what answer you’d get. And to refer to singing as a canticle…it reminds us of course of “The Song of Songs” — canticles. So it does have…but that's no problem to me. I just think that's part of that old quaint traditional language. It's fine by me, but I imagine some people may want to update the language of the hymn.

Dr. Wymond: It would be interesting to see what it is in the original German. The thing that interests me about this hymn is that it's just one of hundreds — in fact, probably a hundred thousand — German hymns that come to us from early on at the Reformation right through …this is about the 1800's. And I think it was wonderful that Caswall as well as others went to that great repository, and so the Reformation would have influenced the thoughts here, but also later Pietism, Moravian Movement, and all that. So it has a lot of different streams that feed into it.

Dr. Duncan: Have you ever seen the German text on which this was based? Because it would be interesting, Bill, you know. I think the German hymn texts had a simple sturdiness about them, and you wonder whether maybe the nineteenth century Victorian translation might have provided the flowery-ness to the lyrics that might not actually reflect the original German.

Dr. Wymond: I think that must be the case. It's probably much simpler.

Dr. Duncan: Bill, what about Joseph Barnby and the tune itself? Tell us a little bit about the tune, because I'm like Derek: when I hear the organ start to play this hymn, I know I'm at church! And chances are it's Sunday morning somewhere in the world and we're getting ready to sing. I love the tune. And I don't like all late nineteenth century tunes, but I really like this one. So tell us a little bit about it and Joseph Barnby.

Dr. Wymond: Well, I think this particular tune is really married well to the words because it has an ascending line right off the bat, which to me is a joyful expression. It just goes right up the scale. Let me play that. [Plays] …Then the next thought, “When morning gilds the skies,” then it says, “My heart awaking cries…” [plays]…so it is this wonderful lifting up, as it were, of the hands or of the voice.

And then it over and over again at this point says “May Jesus Christ be praised.” [plays]…Then it explains a little bit about when and why and where and so on when it says, “Alike at work and prayer, to Jesus I repair”…and so it has a more pedantic sound [plays]…and then it comes to a bold assertion: “May Jesus Christ be praised.” And it slows down the time almost to a chorale effect…[plays]. So that's a strong ending! I think this is a very, very good tune for all of those reasons.

Dr. Duncan: What about Barnby? Did he give us any other tunes that we still use, or do you…?

Dr. Wymond: Barnby wrote more than two hundred tunes, many of which were in the hymnal. One that's very familiar to most people is Now the Day is Over. Now there are probably better ones…[plays]. I have known that evening hymn since I was a child, and that always suggests “night church” to me.

Barnby was a child prodigy. He was born up in the north of England, and he served at the early age of seven in the choir at Yorkminster, the second…is that the second most important seat in Britain? I think so, in the established church. Then he went down to London where he went to the Royal Academy and so on like that, and he served as an organist and a director in a number of churches. He had the annual presentation of Bach's St. Matthew Passion in his church in the 1870's and ‘80's, which was kind of a pioneering thing to be doing at that time in Britain. He also was the first to conduct Parcival, by Wagner…

Dr. Thomas: I knew I liked this man! (Laughter)

Dr. Wymond: …in London around those times, probably, maybe in the Royal Albert Hall shortly after it had been opened. He conducted St. Matthew Passion at Westminster Abbey, so he was in the forefront of presenting some of the really great choral masterpieces there. His hymn tunes are, though, somewhat simple and direct but very, very good in service of the text.

Dr. Thomas: To those “don't sing more than three verses” folks, of which there are many in all of our churches …(laughter)…I want you to know there are fifteen stanzas to the original of When Morning Gilds the Skies. It's pretty repetitive, of course.

Dr. Duncan: Wow! Now we have six in our hymnal.

Dr. Thomas: Umhmm. A few of them you can see why they fell out of use, but one is precisely the sentiment you were referring to a few minutes ago, Ligon:

“When you begin the day, oh, never fail to say:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

I'm amazed that has dropped out. That's a beautiful sentiment. But

“Whene’er the sweet church bell peals, o’er hill and dell,

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“O hark, to what it sings, as joyously it rings:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“My tongue shall never tire of chanting with the choir:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

And so on and so on…and some are in the area of doggerel, I think, but I do like that

“When you begin the day, oh, never fail to say:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“And at your work rejoice, to sing with heart and voice:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

Dr. Duncan: It would repay someone researching that online and reading through the whole of the original stanzas, but let's take some time for a moment, Derek, and walk through each of the six stanzas that we have in our Trinity Hymnal. The Trinity Hymnal in its revised form is published by the joint publishing house of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America. It's called Great Commission Publications. They’re based in Atlanta, Georgia. And Dr. Wymond, our friend and colleague here, was part of that revision committee and put the hymnal together, and they have six of those stanzas in our hymn book. Let's just walk though, because it's a nice clear exhortation that's being given.

We've already mentioned it starts out by saying that when it's morning, my heart awaking cries, “May Jesus Christ be praised.” And when I'm at work or prayer, I repair to Jesus with the expression, “May Jesus Christ be praised.” And then the second stanza, “When sleep her balm denies…” [I can't sleep at night] “…my silent spirit sighs, “May Jesus Christ be praised.” Or, the next line:

“When evil thoughts molest, with this I shield my breast:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

So when I'm tempted or I'm being discouraged by thoughts from the evil one, I praise Jesus Christ.

Then in the third stanza,

“Does sadness fill my mind? A solace here I find:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

So if I'm sad or depressed, or downcast, I praise Jesus Christ.

“Or fades my earthly bliss? My comfort still is this:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

I'm experiencing a difficult time in this life. I praise Jesus Christ.

“In heavn's eternal bliss the loveliest strain is this:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

So this praise won't end in this world. It will continue in the better world to come.

And I love this line:

“The powers of darkness fear, when this sweet chant they hear:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

That's a very encouraging line, I think, to a believer struggling in this world of sin, to know that there are many things that the power of darkness is encouraged by, but hearing the praise of Christ is not one of them.

“Let earth's wide circle round in joyful notes resound…”

And that's almost like the Psalm's call: “Let everything that has life and breath praise the Lord!”

“Let earth's wide circle round in joyful notes resound:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“Let air and sea and sky, from depth to height, reply:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

And then the final stanza:

“Be this, while life is mine, my canticle divine:…”

You were referring to this earlier, Derek. It just means this: while life is mine, I want this to be my song: “May Jesus Christ be praised.”

“Be this the eternal song, through all the ages on:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

And notice again in this hymn, just like we saw in Give to Our God Immortal Praise, there is a focus both on the now and the not yet — the life now and the life to come — so that … What is it that John Stott says about the Bible exhorting us to do in the Christian life what we actually couldn't do with our eyes physically? That is, to have one eye on the present and the past of what Christ has done for us now, and one eye on the future of what God is going to do. And that's captured really well in this hymn and in some other hymns that we've studied.

Dr. Thomas: It's remarkably simple, isn't it, in its prose? There are a few odd words here and there — gild, canticle, and so on — but the sentiment of it is so very understandable, praising the name of Jesus Christ. And like Psalm 136 that we were thinking about recently with the tune WARRINGTON, this is just a beautiful morning hymn. Although I suppose…would you sing this hymn in the evening, as though…? Because it refers to the morning….

Dr. Wymond: I think so, because it's so wedded to the morning. Of course you could do it at the nighttime service.

And one thing in here that impresses me is just his being in touch with the full-orbed emotions of life, and especially those second and third verses that talk about when you can't go to sleep, and you have a disturbed spirit, and evil thoughts even there may be bothering you. And you think of the innocence of children who can sleep right through the night, and they don't wake up worried about anything maybe but having to go to school or something like that. But then as we move on into life and are more experienced, and as physical things happen, oftentimes I think there are people who do not have sleep and whose minds range through all sorts of concerns. And the psalmist talks a lot about that, about God ministering during those hours.

Dr. Duncan: And I love our hymns that are hymns of praise that include those dark sides to the Christian life. There are several of them that we sing regularly that will just have a line or two that will remind us that all is not always bright and cheerful and happy in the Christian life. There's pain and there's death, and there's hurt and there are wounds, and there are trials and there are tribulations, and yet there is this resounding praise that comes along with them.

Dr. Wymond: Sometimes people will object to some of the gospel songs. All of us love the gospel songs …many of the gospel songs… but sometimes they have a bit of late 1900's optimism that wasn't really true: “At the cross, at the cross,” you know, “…where my burden is rolled away, and now I'm happy all the day.” And some people have reacted to that over-optimism there.

Dr. Thomas: Yes, I was struck as Ligon was going through each stanza again how you know these hymns and yet they come to you fresh once again:

“Does sadness fill my mind? A solace here I find:

May Jesus Christ be praised.
Or fades my earthly bliss? My comfort still is this:
May Jesus Christ be praised.”

Dr. Duncan: Yes. And I’ll tell you what happens to me, Derek. I’ll be in the middle of singing this. I’ll be standing with you in the service, and I’ll look out and I’ll catch the eye of a dear friend who's just lost his wife; and I'm singing this line, and suddenly it dramatically changes the way I'm praising God. I'm praising Him for something deep and profound. It's not just some passing, shallow sadness that I'm experiencing that I'm thinking about. Suddenly I'm thinking about there's my brother out there who's lost his wife, and yet the writer of the hymn and the congregation are providing him with substance to praise God, even in this deep loss that he's experiencing.

Dr. Wymond: So the reality of our Christian worship is when the family of God gathers, we have people in every state: some in doubt; some in sadness; some in great joy; some terribly depressed…and so on like that. And it's just so realistic to the state of our lives.

Dr. Duncan: And well-rounded public worship has to address all of those stages. You know, if it's all upbeat or if it's all downbeat, you've got to express all of those states. And I love the way the Psalms do that, and I love the way that good hymns do that. They’ll bring out those aspects. Without being morose, they’ll be realistic; and without being sort of sentimental, they’ll be appropriately joyful. And we need that in worship.

Well, Bill, why don't you play for us this wonderful hymn, When Morning Gilds the Skies.

“When morning gilds the skies, my heart awaking cries:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

Alike at work and prayer to Jesus I repair:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“When sleep her balm denies, my silent spirit sighs:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

When evil thoughts molest, with this I shield my breast:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“Does sadness fill my mind? A solace here I find:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

Or fades my earthly bliss? My comfort still is this:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“In heaven's eternal bliss the loveliest strain is this:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

The powers of darkness fear, when this sweet chant they hear:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“Let earth's wide circle round in joyful notes resound:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

Let air and sea and sky, from depth to height, reply:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

“Be this, while life is mine, my canticle divine:

May Jesus Christ be praised.

Be this the eternal song, through all the ages on:

May Jesus Christ be praised.”

Dr. Wymond: This has been “Hymns of the Faith” brought to you by Jackson's First Presbyterian Church. Our soloist this morning was Victor Smith.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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