I’ve been working on my next book of reflections on hymns, and just completed the story behind “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.” The writing of this hymn was prompted by the social and economic conditions in the United States following the Civil War. As I was explaining the context of this hymn to Mim, she said, “That sounds just like the social, economic, and political situation today. You should blog about it.” So here’s a peek at one reflection that will be in my next book.
The time period following the Civil War in America was turbulent. In the late 1860s, America was beginning to change from a land of mostly farmers to an urban industrial society with two distinct classes of people – the super wealthy and the vulnerable poor – the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and the slum-dwelling working class. Economic injustice was one of the dominant themes of the day.
Washington Gladden was a Congregational pastor of a church in Ohio. He was very troubled by how society was evolving, and he became an outspoken activist for moral reform in industry, commerce, and politics. He wrote 38 books on related moral reform themes, as well as numerous editorials and articles, and even poems and hymns. He became a noted leader in the Social Gospel Movement, a movement to apply Christian ethics to social problems – to apply Jesus’ teachings to our daily living, to take seriously the prophet Micah’s admonition to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Gladden was widely criticized by fellow clergymen for his political involvement. They thought he should limit himself to preaching the gospel instead of getting involved in secular justice issues. Gladden wrote the poem,“Walking with God,” and published it in his magazine in 1879 as a response to this criticism. The poem had three verses of eight lines each.
Dr. Charles H. Richards, an editor and publisher of hymns, read the poem and loved it, except for the second verse. He omitted that verse, and split the first and third verses into four verses of four lines each. Then Richards paired the edited poem with the tune MARYTON, and published it as the hymn, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” in his book, CHRISTIAN PRAISE. The omitted verse helps us understand why Gladden wrote this hymn. I’m sure he felt better after writing it – even if he’s the only one singing it.
O Master, let me walk with thee
Before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me to bear the sting of spite,
The hate of men who hide Thy light,
The sore distrust of souls sincere
Who cannot read Thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude,
Who dimly guess that Thou art good.
Obviously, Gladden thought his critics were hypocrites who were totally blind to what the Bible really says about justice issues. That was back in the 1870s, as our country was evolving from an agricultural age to an industrial age, and economic changes were bringing about extreme wealth and extreme poverty.
And that’s what is happening today, as well. Today’s age of technology of all types is bringing about chaos in many new ways. Unfortunately, our political parties have very different ideas about how to address the chaos. And, most unfortunately, people have forgotten how to work together to solve our problems. Listening. Understanding. Compromising. Respecting each other. These seem to be lost skills.
I feel that many Christians support policies that I believe are contrary to what the Bible says about justice issues, like caring for the needy, and welcoming strangers. I feel just like Gladden felt. Maybe we should all do what Gladden did – write a hymn like Gladden’s, one that begins with words like,
O Jesus, Let me walk with you,
before the horrid Washington crew …
After getting out that bitter first verse, we might be able to move on to more constructive, positive verses, like the ones below, verses that begin with words like, “Help me… Teach me… In hope…”