History of Hymns: 'Now, on Land and Sea Descending'
By Beth R. Holzemer
“Now, on Land and Sea Descending”
by Samuel Longfellow
The United Methodist Hymnal, 685
Now, on land and sea descending,
brings the night its peace profound;
let our vesper hymn be blending
with the holy calm around.
Let our vesper hymn be blending
with the holy calm around.
“Now, on Land and Sea Descending” stands as a quintessential example of a vesper song. Vespers, or evening prayers, hold a special place in Roman Catholic and other Christian liturgies and, with lauds (morning prayers), are arguably the two most important parts of the traditional Liturgy of the Hours. Many scholars believe vespers is based on a form of evening celebration observed among Jews in the first century BCE (“Vespers,” n.p.). Churches from Catholic and Orthodox traditions use a set pattern of hymns, antiphons, psalms, and prayer, while Anglican and Lutheran services follow that basic pattern but include more choices to individualize each service.
The United Methodist Book of Worship (p. 577) includes “An Order for Night Praise and Prayer” which some other Protestant denominations refer to as “Evensong,” a term derived from the Anglican tradition. Many elements of traditional vespers can be found in The United Methodist Hymnal:
Phos hilaron: “O Gladsome Light,” The United Methodist Hymnal, 686 – the oldest known hymn recorded outside of the Bible.
Magnificat: “My Soul Gives Glory to My God,” The UM Hymnal, 198, “Canticle of Mary,” The UM Hymnal, 199, and “Tell Out, My Soul,” The UM Hymnal, 200 – the song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55 upon learning of her pregnancy.
Nunc Dimittis: “Canticle of Simeon,” The UM Hymnal, 225 and “My Master, See, the Time Has Come,” The UM Hymnal, 226– the words of St. Simeon from Luke 2:29-32 at the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple.
Kyrie Eleison: “Lord Have Mercy,” The UM Hymnal,. 482, “Kyrie Eleison,” The UM Hymnal, 483 and 484, and “Let Us Pray to the Lord,” The UM Hymnal, 485 – a prayer response petitioning God for mercy.
Gloria Patri: “Glory Be to the Father,” The UM Hymnal, 70 and 71 – a short hymn of praise.
Our Father: “The Lord’s Prayer,” The UM Hymnal, 270 and 271 – the prayer of Jesus from Matthew 6:9-13.
Samuel Longfellow (1819-1892), Unitarian pastor, transcendentalist, and hymn writer, first introduced vesper services to the Unitarian Church in 1858. The New York Times reported in 1861:
The “Vesper service,” introduced into the Unitarian Church, by Rev. Samuel Longfellow, in 1858, while pastor of the Second Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, seems destined to win wide favor. It was some time since adopted by several of the leading churches of that faith in New-England, and has recently been introduced into Rev. Dr. Osgood’s Church, of this City; Dr. Farley’s, of Brooklyn; Dr. Elliot's, of St. Louis; at Alton and Quincy, Illinois, and is welcomed with great heartiness by the Unitarians of old England. The new church at Yonkers, in this State, have also just adopted it. A recent correspondent of the Christian Register says “It seems to most of its friends the most impressive of all orders of worship, and what is remarkable, it interests persons of the most opposite creeds and tempers, from the High Churchman to the Methodist, from the Presbyterian to the Transcendentalists. Yet it is a very simple matter, and all its materials are to be found in the Bible and the Hymn Book.” It has filled the churches to overflowing wherever it has been adopted, and the interest in it continues unabated. (“Longfellow’s Vespers,” 1861, n.p.)
The innovative liturgical initiative of a new vesper service spread throughout the country and attracted an ecumenical following. Can you imagine that such an event would be discussed in The New York Times today?
Samuel Longfellow was the last of eight children and brother of the great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), author of the Civil War Christmas hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (1864), and about whom the younger Longfellow wrote a well-regarded biography. Samuel graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1846 and, upon receiving ordination as a Unitarian minister, became pastor at Fall River, Massachusetts, 1848; at Brooklyn, 1853; and at Germantown, Pennsylvania, 1860. Like his poet brother, Henry, Samuel embraced transcendentalism, which burgeoned in New England in the early nineteenth century. Basic tenets of transcendentalism include self-reliance and individualism, the importance of nature as a path to God, valuing intuition over knowledge, and the belief that human instinct can lead to understanding God. Other major leaders in the movement include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson (“Transcendentalism,” n.p.).
Longfellow’s twenty-plus hymns and three hymn collections offer many examples of the adaptation of transcendentalism into his writing. “Now, on Land and Sea Descending” was first published under the title “Creator Alme Siderum” (“Creator of the stars of night”) in Vespers: according to the use of the New Chapel, Brooklyn (New York, 1859), a collection designed as a companion to Longfellow’s Sunday Vesper services for the Second Unitarian Society, Brooklyn. In its original 1859 form, the text was in 184.108.40.206.D meter without the joyful “Jubilate! Amen!” interjections. This may have been borrowed later from another of Longfellow’s lesser published evening hymns, “Soft as Fades the Sunset Splendor” (1866) and inserted into our hymn (Watson, n.p.). Thus, stanzas one and two formed the first stanza. However, it is likely this refrain was inserted to match the tune VESPER HYMN, which was paired with “Hark! The vesper hymn is stealing” by Irish layman Thomas Moore (1779-1852) and included a “Jubilate! Jubilate! Jubilate! Amen!” refrain in each stanza.
True to the author’s transcendental beliefs, the text abounds with references to the natural world – “sunset glory,” “stars of heaven,” and “eternal stars” in “the Spirit’s skies.” Within the glory of God’s creation, the believer feels the touch of God as night falls and the burdens of the day fall away. Another of Longfellow’s vesper hymns, “Again, as Evening Shadows Fall” (1859), published more often than our hymn, echoes these feelings of peace and release found “mingling on the holy air.”
The hymn tune now called VESPER HYMN first appeared as RUSSIAN AIR in A Selection of Popular National Airs (1818), collected by British cathedral musician John A. Stevenson (1761-1833) as a setting for a different vesper poem, “Hark! The vesper hymn is stealing.” Originally attributed to Dimitri Stepanovitch Bortniansky (1751-1825), an influential Russian composer, no additional evidence has been found to connect the music with this musician. The music was printed on a broadsheet as early as 1819 in New York City as a popular glee tune and renamed VESPER HYMN by the publication of the Congregational collection Christian Lyre (New York, 1831) [Ronander, 1966, 45]. However, a footnote in Popular National Airs reveals that Stevenson had added the “Jubilate! Amen” refrain leading to speculation that Stevenson actually composed the tune (Brink, 1988, 652).
This evening hymn joins others on this theme in The United Methodist Hymnal, including one by the American Methodist laywoman, Mary Lathbury (1841-1913), “Day is Dying in the West” (1877), composed for the opening of the famous Chautauqua Assembly, “O Gladsome Light, O Grace of God the Father’s Face” (1899) by Englishman Robert Bridges (1844-1930), a translation of the third-century Greek hymn “Phos hilaron,” “The Day is Past and Over” (1853), a sixth-century Latin hymn translated by the king of British translators in the nineteenth century, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), and Thomas Ken’s (1637-1711) famous “All Praise to Thee, My God, this Night” (c. 1692), written for the boys of Winchester College.
Sources and Further Reading
Emily Brink, Psalter Hymnal Handbook (Grand Rapids: CRC Press, 1988).
“Longfellow’s Vespers,” New York Times Archives, December 15, 1861: https://www.nytimes.com/1861/12/15/archives/longfellows-vespers.html?searchResultPosition=3 (Accessed August 22, 2019)
Robert Ronander and Ethel Porter, Guide to the Pilgrim Hymnal (Boston: United Church Press, 1966).
“Transcendentalism, An American Philosophy,” U.S. History Online Textbook: http://www.ushistory.org/us/26f.asp (Accessed August 22, 2019)
“Vespers,” Encyclopedia Britannica (July 20, 1998), britannica.com: Accessed August 22, 2019)
J. R. Watson, Carlton R. Young, and C. Michael Hawn. “Now, on Land and Sea Descending. “The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 27, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/n/now,-on-land-and-sea-descending.
Beth R. Holzemer, M.M., is Director of Traditional Music and Worship at First United Methodist Church, Hopkinsville, KY, and a member of the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.