Tag Archive | Seasonal Hymns

“This Little Light of Mine” and a Home Town Protest

Well, it happened again. I turned up too much information, and I need to share it somewhere. It’s too much for the book I’m writing, so I guess it needs to go into another blog post, just like the last time this happened, when I wrote about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This time the song is “This Little Light of Mine.”

I’m still spending most of my days working on my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. So far I’ve written hymn reflections on 12 hymns for Advent, 21 for Christmas, and 9 for Epiphany. “This Little Light of Mine” is my last song for Epiphany. Then I can move on to Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. Eventually I’ll get to the patriotic hymns of summer, hopefully while it’s still summer. My goal is to complete the book before the end of the year, and to have written reflections on about 100 seasonal hymns.

But as I said above, I learned a lot about “This Little Light of Mine,” and I want to tell you about it.

According to the National Public Radio (NPR) series, “National Anthem,” produced in 2018, 

Fans know “This Little Light of Mine” as a beloved children’s tune, recognized around the world. But it’s also a spiritual, which was transformed by the nation’s civil rights movement into an anthem of singular power.

In the 1960s, during demonstrations for civil rights, the singing of “This Little Light of Mine” helped to steady the nerves of protestors while angry police officers threatened to beat them up. Freedom singer Rutha Mae Harris recalled, “Music was an anchor. It kept us from being afraid. ‘Everywhere I go, Lord, I’m gonna let it shine…’”

Fifty years later, in 2017, the song was still having the same impact. Reverend Osagyefo Sekou used “This Little Light of Mine” to defuse tensions during a counter-protest before a crowd of white supremacists and alt-right supporters gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We had originally said we were going to stand silently,” says Rev. Sekou, a recording artist, author, theologian and activist who helped train volunteers at the counter-protest. “But the Nazis were marching past us in these various battalions, cursing and yelling – mostly homophobic slurs – at us. And you could feel the energy of the people who weren’t with us… [They] were getting amped up.” 

Sekou says he knew, in that moment, he had to change the atmosphere. “I know song can do that. So I just broke into ‘This Little Light of Mine.’”

In a moment captured on video, the clergy and volunteers … are shown standing in a line, their voices rising over the chants of “You will not replace us” from the rally crowd. “The tensions went down … and it shook the Nazis,” Sekou says. “They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”

There’s another story about another movement for justice and the role “This Little Light of Mine” played. This story is from “Sojourners” magazine, December 13, 2013. 

Two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, … hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called “usury” – the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor. 

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” sang 70 customers inside the cavernous lobby at BOA headquarters. “Even in my bank, I’m gonna let it shine!” they sang, marching seven times along the gleaming glass and polished marble walls…. 

The writer of this Sojourners’ article ended the story saying,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice: sitting on a bus, ordering coffee at a lunch counter, or transferring your money to a credit union built for people, not profits. I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song reverberating around an office building, could enflesh the presence of God, even if they weren’t hot enough or bright enough to right the wrongs, nor turn oppression into justice nor usher in the kingdom of God. I didn’t know it could be enough just to catch a glimpse of that kingdom, wherever two or three were gathered in Christ’s name….  I didn’t know this little light might actually free people, here on earth, not completely, but at least give them a bit more freedom from things like debt, or hunger, or poverty, or violence, or loneliness…. 

 

And then there’s a story I personally experienced just a couple weeks ago. But we didn’t sing “This Little Light of Mine.” About a hundred people gathered at Veterans Park in downtown Cambridge, Wisconsin, population less than 2,000, to support the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the 2010 census, the population of Cambridge is 96.8% White, 0.9% African American, and 1.7% Latino. We’re a typical small town of the Midwest. And although racial injustice doesn’t touch us very directly in our everyday lives, we do recognize injustice when we see it, and at least a hundred of us, probably many more, want to do what we can to bring about justice. What we did in the park that evening was listen to a couple speakers, hold “Black Lives Matter” signs, meet some of our neighbors who share our same concerns for justice, stand together in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and pray together, led by one of our local pastors. 

If we hold another demonstration in the future, I hope we sing “This Little Light of Mine” as so many other freedom protesters have done in the past. Why do I care so much about singing this song?

Although most people know “This Little Light of Mine” as a Sunday School song or as a Freedom song for peaceful protests, it is definitely a song that belongs in the Epiphany chapter of my book, as well. The word “epiphany” means “appearance or manifestation.” Epiphany as a church holiday refers to January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, and it commemorates the Wise Men finding the Christ Child and bringing him gifts. This is considered the first manifestation of Christ to Gentiles. Probably the most well-known Epiphany carol is “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” 

But the Epiphany season is about much more than the Wise Men’s journey to find Jesus. It’s about other ways God has given us an “epiphany” – an “aha!” moment – about the nature of God and our relationship to God’s world. A common theme of Epiphany is light. It is with light, that truth is revealed to us. That’s why we sing “Jesus, the Light of the World,” another Epiphany carol. And Jesus told his disciples to be the light of the world, as well. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, New King James Version

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!  [sing 3 times]
Let it shine!   [sing 3 times]

Shine all over Cambridge, I’m gonna let it shine! [sing 3 times]
Let it shine! [sing 3 times]

That’s the song. Regardless of who is singing it, and for whatever purpose, the first verse is always the same. The simple pattern of the first verse can easily be filled in with new words to fit any justice issue – to shed a light on whatever injustice needs to be illuminated – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice, and so on.

As the writer of the Sojourner’s article explained,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice… I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song … could enflesh the presence of God…

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear”

I’m having the time of my life during this “Safer at Home” interlude in our lives. I average about eight hours a day on writing my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. I’ve written a dozen reflections on Advent carols, and thirteen reflections on Christmas carols, with eight more to go. Then there are ten more to write for Epiphany before I can move on to Lent and Easter. Eventually, I’ll get through the whole year of seasonal music. Meanwhile, I’m reliving Christmas these days. 

After I research and write each reflection for the book, I give it to Mim for feedback to be sure the text flows well enough to make sense to her. Yesterday I finished writing about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” and gave it to Mim to read. She approved. But then I told her about my frustration of having to leave out so much information that I had gathered. I didn’t have room to include it all if I wanted to stick to the format of having just one page for each reflection. When I told her about all the interesting facts I was leaving out, she said, “Why don’t you write a blog post about it so you can include everything you want.” So that’s what this is – my extended reflection on the Christmas Carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” 

As we’re experiencing a colder than usual spring these days, imagine yourself back in the Christmas season, singing the carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”

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Tune Name:   CAROL
Composer:      Richard Storrs Willis 
(1819-1900) American composer and organist.
Author:            Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876) Unitarian minister.
Scripture:        Luke 2:13-14  
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.

 

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Edmund Sears grew up on a farm in western Massachusetts, near the Berkshire Mountains. He once told a friend that as a child he imagined that the hilltops touched heaven and that angels rested on the hilltops between heaven and earth on their errands for God. 

His parents taught him and his two brothers the importance of moral values, and they encouraged them to study – once the farm work was done. He graduated from Union College in New York, and worked briefly as a lawyer and a teacher, but soon went to Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister, graduating in 1837, at age 27. 

The American Unitarian Association supported his work as a missionary in the frontier area around Toledo, Ohio for about a year. Then he returned to Massachusetts, where he accepted a position as pastor of a small Unitarian church in the town of Wayland. Meanwhile, he got married, and by the time his family grew to include four children, he realized he needed a larger church that could support his whole family. He accepted a call to a church in Lancaster, Massachusetts and served there for seven years. 

The mid-1800s were stressful times in the United States. Americans were dealing with the affects of the Industrial Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, and the issue of slavery. The social disruption resulting from all these factors put a lot of pressure on Sears as the pastor of a large congregation, where he was trying to provide both leadership and personal support to the members. Sears had a breakdown and retreated back to the small town of Wayland to recover. 

While recovering, Sears wrote the poem “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This poem is focused on two ideas: first, the angels that appeared on the night of Christ’s birth to announce, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men!” and second, the dismal condition of the world in his day (and still today as we sing the song). The third stanza (often omitted from today’s hymnals) emphasizes the “woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long.” The last stanza reassures us that the time of peace will come eventually as the prophets foretold. 

This carol has been controversial throughout its history. It may be the only Christmas carol that doesn’t even mention the birth of Christ. Since Sears was known to be a Unitarian, many religious conservatives claimed this carol proved his lack of belief that Christ is truly divine, and therefore the hymn should be removed from hymnals. Other churches rewrote parts of the carol to bring the birth of Christ into it. Because this hymn focused on the awful conditions on earth to contrast the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth,” this hymn is often considered one of the earliest hymns of the social gospel movement.

A year after writing this poem, Sears had recovered enough to accept a call back to the small church in Wayland to serve again as their part-time pastor. He also went back to writing extensively. He was quite outspoken about equal rights for men and women, and for the abolition of slavery. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, Sears declared from the pulpit that “when the human and Divine law were in conflict it was the duty of all to obey the latter.” In 1856, Sears preached a sermon entitled “Discourse” in which he not only condemned slavery as evil, but he directly condemned slave owners, as well. The sermon was considered such a strong argument against slavery that the Massachusetts Abolitionists printed it as a pamphlet to be widely distributed.

How the music for “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” became associated with the text is a mystery. Shortly after the poem was written, Richard Storrs Willis composed a musical exercise, “Study No. 23” in his “Church Chorals and Choir Studies.” Willis later wrote in a letter to a friend, “On my return from Europe in [1876], I found that it (the tune) had been incorporated into various church collections apparently to Edmund Sears’ text.” No one knows who is responsible, or in what circumstances, the poem and the tune were joined together. However, the pairing has lasted for more than a hundred years, and it has become one of our favorite Christmas carols.

Imagine a choir of angels resting on the hilltops of the Berkshires as they return to heaven after their appearance on Earth for Christ’s birth. Perhaps with that image in mind, Sears wrote “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” As he pondered the angels’ message, and thought about all the anguish we’re still suffering down here, he wrote five stanzas. One of the most relevant stanzas to us today is seldom sung:

But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And we, at war with earth, hear not the tidings, which they bring:
O hush the noise, and cease the strife, and hear the angels sing!

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