History of Hymns: 'How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ'
By Denise Makinson
“How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ”
by Fred Pratt Green
The United Methodist Hymnal, 654
How blest are they who trust in Christ
When we and those we love must part.
We yield them up, for go we must,
But do not lose them from our heart.*
*©1972 Hymn Society of America, distributed by Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
When a loved one dies, our hearts grieve the loss of an important person in our lives. We gather together as a community of faith with family and friends to remember and proclaim the promises of God. The Christian funeral witnesses to the promise of the Resurrection, especially through scripture and song. As with any worship experience, the act of joining in song binds people together. When we sing words such as these by Fred Pratt Green, we find comfort and are assured that God is with us in our grief.
Fred Pratt Green (1903–2000) was born to Charles and Hannah (Greenwood) Green in Roby, England, which is now a suburb of Liverpool. His father ran a leather manufacturing business and was a Methodist preacher. Fred Pratt Green worked in his father’s business for a short time before entering Didsbury Theological College in 1925. While there, he developed his literary interests and wrote his first play, “Farley Goes Out.” Immediately after college, he became chaplain at a newly established Methodist boarding school for girls, Hunmanby Hall. It was at this time that he wrote his first hymn, “God Lit a Flame in Bethlehem,” and met and married the love of his life, Marjorie Dowsett.
Pratt Green dedicated himself fully to the work of ministry. He served various churches throughout England. In 1944, a friendship began with agnostic poet Fallon Webb, who encouraged Pratt Green to start writing again. The two of them began to share poems back and forth for the next twenty years. Three collections of Pratt Green’s poems from this time period have been published: This Unlikely Earth (1952), The Skating Parson (1963), and The Old Couple (1976).
It wasn’t until Fred Pratt Green retired in 1969 that he began to fully embrace writing hymn texts. Shortly before he retired, he had been invited to serve on a committee to help prepare a supplement to the Methodist Hymnbook, published as Hymns and Songs.
I guessed I had been chosen because of a modest reputation as a poet—to scrutinize the new material from a literary angle. However, we soon found ourselves with tunes we liked, but without suitable texts, and with themes no hymn writers seemed to have tackled. This is why there are eight hymns of mine in Hymns and Songs—I was told to go and write them. Our book was duly published in 1969 (Green, 1979, p. 154).
Thus began his retirement career of hymn writing, with hymns appearing in most major hymnals and hymnal supplements in the English-speaking world. In all, Fred Pratt Green wrote three hundred hymn texts.
In the late twentieth century, beginning in Great Britain, there was a sudden increase in the writing of hymns. In addition to Fred Pratt Green, other notable British writers who contributed to this increase were Fred Kaan (1929–2009), Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926) and Brian Wren (b. 1936.) When asked about how he saw his work in relation to this time period, Pratt Green said
Hymnologists have decreed that the work of a group of us writing hymns in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, amounted to an explosion after the dull period of the first half of the century. We have accepted the responsibility! We saw our work as meeting a need: to express the insights of our time in the language of today. . . We were especially conscious of the gaps in current hymnody, particularly in relation to social justice, racial equality, world peace, the protection of the environment, and similar issues. This need was felt by all the churches (cited in Westermeyer, 1995, p. 88).
Fred Pratt Green approached hymn writing from a pastoral perspective grounded in years of preaching. The traditions and liturgies of the Christian faith also play an important role. Pratt Green wrote that he found the task of hymn writing “a fascinating assignment. I had no doubt at all that if, as a poet, I had complete liberty to choose my themes, my forms, and language, to please myself, now, as a hymn-writer I must become a servant of the Church, writing what was suitable to be sung in an act of worship” (cited in Braley, 1982, pp. xv-xvi). “How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ” demonstrated both his pastoral heart and his understanding of Christian worship. This hymn is fitting for All Saints Sunday, funerals, and anytime the church needs to sing about the hope of Resurrection.
“How Blest Are They Who Trust in Christ” was first written and published in the Methodist Recorder in 1972 and included an additional stanza:
They journey on! While we must stay,
Our work not done, our time unspent;
What baffles us to them grows clear.
In Christ the Truth they are content.
Pratt Green later edited the final two lines of this original third stanza:
May we, each day, rejoice in grace,
Each day our stubborn sins repent.
In 1976, this hymn was submitted to the Roman Catholic Commission on English in the Liturgy. It was originally accepted, but was later rejected by the Commission as theologically inadequate. In 1980, the Hymn Society of America was searching for new texts on the Christian life. This hymn was entered with minor text changes and without the third stanza. Out of 457 entries submitted, it was one of the four accepted.
As a minister in the Methodist church, grounding his hymn texts in Word of God was an important basis for his hymns. The ideas expressed in his hymns are powerful and relevant because of the care he gives to lifting up the message of the Bible. “How Blest Are They” speaks beautifully to those who are grieving. When sung at a funeral or on All Saints Sunday, we hear words of hope echoed in scripture. In the very first line, “How blest are they who trust in Christ,”, we hear the promise of Psalm 40:4: “Happy are those who make the Lord their trust” (NRSV).
Stanza 2 acknowledges the grief experienced by loved ones regardless of the age of the one who has died:
In ripened age, their harvest reaped,
Or gone from us in youth or prime. . .
The last two lines of this stanza claim the promise of Romans 6:8: “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (NRSV).
In Christ they have eternal life,
Released from all the bonds of time.
The first line of stanza 3—“In Christ, who tasted death for us”—reminds us of the hope we find in Hebrews 2:9: “but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (NRSV). This hymn is the work of a pastor who has presided at many funerals and guided many through the grief process.
Fred Pratt Green’s passionate embrace of hymn writing brought him much recognition. In 1977, he was honored to have his hymn, “It Is God Who Holds the Nations in the Hollow of His Hand,” chosen to be included in the official order of service for the nationwide celebrations of Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1982, Pratt Green was made a fellow of the Hymn Society of America and was awarded an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His hymns have found their way across theological, denominational, and national boundaries. Many compared Pratt Green to the prolific Methodist hymn writer Charles Wesley (who composed more than six thousand hymns). However, Fred Pratt Green rejected those comparisons, “It’s like being hailed as the Fourth Person of the Trinity” (Beeson, 2002, 234). Pratt Green died peacefully on October 22, 2000, at the age of 97. His hymns continue to sing on and witness to a life lived in faith and hope.
Sources and For Further Reading
Trevor Beeson, “The Reverend Fred Pratt Green,” Priests and Prelates: The Daily Telegraph Clerical Obituaries (London: Continuum Intl Pub Group, 2002), 234.
Bernard Braley, The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Pub., 1982).
Fred Pratt Green, “Hymn Writing in Retirement,” The Hymn 30:4 (July 1979), 154-158.
Paul Westermeyer, With Tongues of Fire: Profiles in 20th-Century Hymn Writing. (St. Louis, MO: CPH, 1995).
Denise Makinson is Director of Worship and Music, Southwood Lutheran Church, Lincoln, NE, where she has served since 1994. A graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln (B.M. in Sacred Music) and University of Nebraska, Lincoln (M.M. in Organ Performance), she is a Deacon in the Lutheran Church (ELCA) and a member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.