History of Hymns: 'Dear Jesus, in Whose Life I See'
By Dr. Catherine Stapleton Nance
“Dear Jesus, in Whose Life I See”
by John Hunter
The United Methodist Hymnal, 468
Dear Jesus, in whose life I see
All that I would, but fail to be,
Let thy clear light forever shine,
To shame and guide this life of mine.
“Dear Jesus, in Whose Life I See” was written by Scottish Congregationalist Rev. John Hunter (1848-1917). Hunter, though trained as a draper who cut cloth for clothing, decided to pursue the ministry. Because he demonstrated exceptional promise at Paton Congregational College in Nottingham, his mentor recommended him to the more select Spring Hill College, Birmingham (later Mansfield College, Oxford). He served Trinity Congregational Church in Glasgow, Scotland (1887-1901 and 1904-1913) with a short term at King’s Weigh House Chapel in London (1901-1904) [Watson, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.]. As evidenced through his publications Services for Public Worship (1886), Hymns of Faith and Life (1896), and Hymns for Faith and Life (1899), Rev. Hunter had a great interest in the worship life of the church during his day.
The hymn first appeared in “The Monthly Calendar,” the magazine of Trinity Church and then in Hymns of Faith and Life (Glasgow,1896). This is the only hymn by Hunter to appear in hymnals. American hymnologist Louis F. Benson noted that though this hymn had a limited use in congregations it was considered “liberal” in its day as it embodied the “modern spirit” with its focus on the Christian experience in life rather than the emphasis on “evangelical otherworldliness.” Furthermore, “in many ways it prefigured and even influenced the trend in present-day hymnals” (Benson, 1915, pp. 460, 579).
According to The Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (1993), the text first appeared in Methodist hymnals in 1935 (Young, 1993, p. 316). The Companion also describes a decision by the Hymnal Revision Committee to change the original word “Master” in the title to “Jesus” to lessen the use of masculine language.
The text itself, in two short stanzas, expresses a confessional perspective. Because of this, some hymnals use this hymn to accompany a prayer of confession before Holy Communion. The first stanza focuses on the contrast between Jesus’ life and our own. The second stanza highlights our divisive nature in what we want to do but what we actually do, ending in a prayer for Jesus’ help in making our lives reflect his.
Though what I dream and what I do
In my weak days are always two,
Help me, oppressed by things undone,
O Thou whose deed and dreams were one!
The confessional nature and the short text would make this hymn a compelling moment of confession in a worship service, followed by the absolution either spoken by the pastor or finding another short hymn emphasizing forgiveness.
The eighteenth-century hymn tune HURSLEY appears in our hymnal for this text, but the LM meter lends itself to many other perhaps less-simple tunes. One possible hymn tune for this text could be the British folk melody WALY WALY (in ¾ meter), which has more of a soaring musical line, representing a progression of growth and transformation. Hal Hopson’s arrangement of this tune GIFT OF LOVE (in 4/4 meter) also may work. There are other hymn tunes that fit the long meter text that are worth exploring as an expression of this meaningful text.
Louis F. Benson, The English Hymn: Its Development and Use in Worship (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915).
J. R. Watson, “Dear Master, in Whose Life I Wee,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed December 11, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/d/dear-master,-in-whose-life-i-see.
_____. “John Hunter,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology Canterbury Press, accessed December 11, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-hunter.
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Dr. Catherine Stapleton Nance is Director of Music Ministries at St. John’s United Methodist Church, Aiken, SC. A graduate of Converse College, Manhattan School of Music, and the Institute for Worship Studies, she is active in the South Carolina Chapter of The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. She is also the Vice President of Content for the national Fellowship office.