History of Hymns: 'Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing'
By Catherine Stapleton Nance
“Lord, Dismiss Us with Thy Blessing”
Attr. to John Fawcett
The United Methodist Hymnal, 671
Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing;
fill our hearts with joy and peace;
let us each, thy love possessing,
triumph in redeeming grace.
O refresh us, O refresh us,
traveling through this wilderness.
In a most unusual hymnological twist, at least four hymns share the same incipit (first line). In addition to the stanza above, Robert Hawker (1753–1827), an Anglican minister, and Henry James Buckoll (1803–71), an Anglican schoolmaster, also composed the two examples of texts that begin “Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing.” Hawker’s text appeared in an 1807 publication and Buckoll’s poem in an 1850 collection. John Fawcett (1740–1817) was not, by contrast, an Anglican, but he was influenced by dissenting traditions. He apprenticed under the influential George Whitefield (1714–70) and considered joining with the Methodists, but he finally settled with the Particular Baptists (Brown, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.). The text appeared first anonymously in A Supplement to the Shawbury Hymn Book (1773). Since 1786, this hymn has been attributed to John Fawcett, author of the well-known parting hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” (1782) (Herl et al., 2019, p. 924).
What might we surmise from this? The “original” version attributed to Fawcett predates the later hymns by Hawker and Buckoll, leading one to suspect that Fawcett’s text was probably known and adapted by later writers to fit their contexts. Hawker’s text fits after the Eucharist observed weekly in the Anglican liturgy, and Buckoll’s poem accommodates the assemblies for the boarding school he served as a schoolmaster. The attribution of this text to Fawcett was explored in depth by John Julian, eminent British hymnologist, at the turn of the twentieth century in his monumental Dictionary of Hymnology (Julian, 1892, pp. 686-688) with no concrete conclusions.
Textual Variations and Meaning
The hymn with two short stanzas in many hymnals reminds us to carry an awareness of God beyond the worship service, asking for refreshment, yet acknowledging that as we leave our worship space, we are going back into the wilderness of the secular world. Carl Daw Jr. suggests that the first stanza is “an adaptation of the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32) for ordinary folk in postbiblical times” (Daw, 2016, p. 542). We need God’s sustaining love and peace even more during the times we are not in worship. The original final line of stanza 1 was “in this dry and barren place.” The replacement—“traveling through this wilderness”—was made in 1774 in A Collection of Hymns and Psalms by Various Authors (London: 1774), edited by Anglican priest Richard Conyers (1725–86), and this alteration became the favored version (Glover, 1994, v. 3A, p. 640). The second stanza turns toward thanking and praising the Lord, reminding us that the gospel (good news) is indeed joyful in its assurance of ultimate victory. The second stanza ends with a prayer to God that this victory of our salvation should remain in our hearts and be evident in our lives so that we may continue ever faithful to God’s truth.
Initially, the hymn had three stanzas, the third of which appeared regularly during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the final stanza of hymns regularly featured an eschatological theme. The original third stanza follows:
So, whene’er the signal’s given,
us from earth to call away,
borne on angels’ wings to heaven,
glad the summons to obey,
may we ever
reign with Christ in endless day.
The inclusion of a third stanza shifts the hymn’s focus from leaving the worship space to departing this life and, ultimately, uniting with Christ in heaven.
On occasion, editors have borrowed an 1804 stanza from another hymn by Irish Anglican Thomas Kelly (1769–1855):
While our days on earth are lengthened,
may we give them, Lord, to thee;
cheered by hope, and daily strengthened,
may we run, nor weary be.
Till thy glory
without clouds in heav’n we see.
In 1880, Anglican priest Godfrey Thring (1823–1903) recast the first three lines of the original final stanza. This version has become the preferred third stanza after around 1920 whenever three stanzas appeared in collections:
So that when thy love shall call us,
Savior, for the world away,
fear of death shall not appall us,
glad thy summons to obey.
May we ever
reign with thee in endless day.
The omission of this stanza reduces the hymn to a brief, but functional hymn of dismissal. The additional stanza, in whichever form it appears, with its focus on eschatology, reminds the gathered body of Christ that worship extends beyond this life and that the ultimate destination is in communion with Christ.
The United Methodist Hymnal pairs this text with the tune SICILIAN MARINERS, commonly sung with the text of a hymn to the Virgin Mary, “O sanctissima, O piissima” (1792). Tradition presents a beautiful image of Sicilian seamen singing this hymn together at the end of each day at sea. One account confirms this as well as its use by gondoliers in Venice (Underwood, 1976, p. 77). The tune probably traveled from Italy to Germany and then to England, where The European Magazine and London Review (1792) titled it “The Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn to the Virgin.” (Brink, 1998, p. 468). According to the same source, the tune began to be associated with the German Christmas carol “O du fröliche, O du seelige” (1816). Some indicate that SICILIAN MARINERS influenced the melody of the African American song “We Shall Overcome.” This assumption is based on the first five pitches of each melody, but appears to be coincidental rather than relational, according to most scholars. The tune’s first appearance with “Lord, Dismiss Us” was in A Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (London, 1803) by O. Nodes and J. Belcher. Hymnological history records other famous texts sung to this tune, including the eighteenth-century hymns “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by British Baptist Robert Robinson (1735–1790) and “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” by Welsh Methodist evangelist William Williams (1717–1791).
Two other tunes commonly appear with this text, one titled DISMISSAL, composed by British music teacher George Whelpton (1847–1930). DISMISSAL is in irregular meter, forcing a certain amount of syncopation, which, combined with an equally irregular melodic line, does not facilitate the singing of the lyrics. One other tune, GREENVILLE, by Genevan philosopher and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), taken from an opera composed in 1752, provides a beautiful musical setting for the text. This hymn tune does not appear in The United Methodist Hymnal, however. It is available in several other hymnals and on a YouTube recording by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQ9SXzuL54E). Using the hymnal text combined with the GREENVILLE tune could form a lovely choral benediction.
This hymn offers a beautiful and appropriately short benediction for the choir or the entire congregation. The printed melody has a moving eighth-note pattern that may require some coaching for the general congregation if it is not familiar to them. Since it is so brief, the hymn could be adopted as a weekly sung response for a specified time to increase familiarity and comfort in singing for all worshipers. Indeed, the prayerful lyrics of this hymn deserve a gentle and familiar tune so that the singers may easily grasp and sing them as a joyful parting prayer.
Sources and Additional Reading
Emily R. Brink, Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids: CRC Publications, 1998).
Chris Brown, “John Fawcett,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (Canterbury Press), http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-fawcett (accessed June 7, 2020).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
Joseph Herl, et al., Lutheran Service Book: Companion to Hymns, Vol. 1 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2019).
John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London: John Murray, 1892).
Raymond F. Glover, ed., The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994).
Byron E. Underwood, “The Earliest Source of ‘The Sicilian Mariner’s Hymn’,” The Hymn 23:7 (July 1976), 77.
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 Robert E. Webber 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 executive board