Though I’m sure I’ve heard it before, this hymn was brought to my attention when I watched the movie Atonement. There is an amazing 5 minute scene (all shot in one take on one camera) in which lead character Robbie is wandering on a beach in Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated to England. The beach is in complete chaos, with thousands of soldiers hanging around, seemingly without any organization - fighting, drinking, trashing vehicles, and waiting helplessly. In the midst of the chaos, however, a choir of soldiers stands in a bandstand, singing this hymn of clamness, stillness, and rest.
The hymn is taken from a longer poem called “The Brewing of Soma,” written in 1872 by Quaker poet John Greeleaf Whittier. In context, it is actually a strong Quaker critique of more traditional forms of Christian spirituality. Whittier begins by depicting a scene from Vedic religion, in which priests concoct a drink, called “Soma,” which is then used in an attempt to come into contact with the divine. In those times, “All men to Soma prayed,” Whittier writes, but his eye is on more recent Christian worship practices, which he believes are no better. ”And still with wondering eyes we trace / The simple prayers to Soma’s grace, / That Vedic verse embalms.”
Clearly Whittier has the Christian sacraments, hymns, and liturgical prayer in mind. As the poem continues he writes,
As in that child-world’s early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!
All religious ceremony is, in his mind, a vain Babel-like attempt to reach the heavens by human effort.
The final six verses of Whittier’s poem are the ones we have come to know as “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” The seventh to the last verse is the climax of his critique:
And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!
It’s amazing that we have taken this polemic against historic forms of Christian worship and turned it into a standard hymn, particularly popular in Anglican circles! When you keep Whittier’s Quaker faith and the rest of the poem in mind, you can still catch the traces of polemic in the verses we know and sing:
- The “simple trust” in unmediated grace (v. 2)
- the idea of rising up “without a word” (v. 2)
- the “Sabbath rest” depicted as the “silence of eternity” (v. 3)
- the “noiseless” blessing of God falling on the worshippers (v. 4)
- the “still dews of quietness” which cause “all our strivings” to cease (v. 5)
- and finally, the dumbing of the senses in the presence of the “still small voice” (v. 6)
Reading it from this perspective, these verses clearly reflect Quaker theology and practice in a very distinctive way.
Should non-Quakers still sing this song, since we don’t ascribe to their beliefs about worship? I would say so. Though it is good to recognize the Quaker aspects of the hymn, poetry does not have one fixed meaning. Even anglo-catholics might be able to interpret this hymn in a way that fits with their approach to worship, particularly since most of the imagery in the hymn is thoroughly biblical. All Christians can affirm the restfulness of being in God’s presence, the place that quietness ought to occupy in worship, and the way that God’s blessing comes to us in spite of our strivings – without taking these convictions in the direction of Quaker theology.
And to be honest, most people are probably so enraptured by the amazing tune, Repton, that they wouldn’t notice the distinctive Quaker aspects of the hymn!
Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.
O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!
With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.
Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.