History of Hymns: 'O God, We Bear the Imprint of Your Face'
By Budi Taniwan
“O God, We Bear the Imprint of Your Face”
by Shirley Erena Murray
Glory to God, 759
O God, we bear the imprint of your face:
the colors of our skin are your design,
and what we have of beauty in our race
as man and woman, you alone define,
who stretched the living fabric on our frame
and gave to each a language and a name.*
*© 1987 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188 Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The first line of this hymn calls to mind the powerful phrase from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables (1862). In the musical, presented in English in 1985, the characters Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Éponine sing in unison before the final chorus:
Take my hand and lead me to salvation;
Take my love, for love is everlasting;
And remember the truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God.
Each character felt love from the other despite their differing social status and background. This love was the source of the revelation that the face of God was present in each person. This understanding of God’s face shown in kindness from Victor Hugo’s novel echoes a similar theme in Shirley Erena Murray’s text: we must love one another despite differences in race or ethnicity because all humanity bears the imprint of God’s face.
Shirley Erena Murray (1931–2020), a native of New Zealand, was a prolific hymnwriter who penned practical theology through her hymns. “O God, we bear the imprint of your face” touches on the global issues of race and ethnicity. The text was written in 1981 when the New Zealand Anti-Apartheid Movement organized against the proposed South African tour of the Springbok Rugby Team, New Zealand’s most formidable opponent. Shirley Murray’s husband, John Stewart Murray (1929–2017), a Presbyterian minister, was a leader in these failed protests, resulting in his public denunciation and placing him under a banning order from entering the House of Parliament. Their son, David, was also arrested. (Murray, 1992, notes)
The author approaches racism by highlighting the importance of Imago Dei (the Image of God) in the incipit (opening line) of the hymn. Murray then emphasizes that God equally creates everyone in God’s image. Throughout the first stanza, Murray accentuates that we do not choose our race or ethnicity— “the colors of our skin are your design, / as man and woman you alone define, / gave to each a language and a name.” These lines are a succinct exegesis of Genesis 1:26–27, affirming that human diversity is indeed in God’s plan.
As the largest organ of the body, our skin is a person’s most noticeable feature. Murray names “skin” as “the living fabric of our frame” in stanza 1 and in the second line of each stanza In stanza 1, skin color is part of creation’s design. In stanza 2, the author acknowledges that hate divides us because our skin colors differ. The third stanza affirms that “we share the image of the One” who took on the skin of humanity.
Stanza 2 explores the political dimensions of racism when, because of differences in skin color, “we are judged unequal by the state” and “become victims . . . reduced to little worth, / dishonored in your living face on earth.” In the final stanza, Murray engages racism from a Christological perspective by referencing Christ’s humanity. Murray reinforces the concept of Imago Dei in the opening line of this stanza, reminding us that God in Christ has made his “flesh and blood ours.” Christ was fully human and, as our brother, all are a part of his family—“our proper kin”—reminding us “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50, NIV).
The author often concludes her hymns with a thought-provoking idea or challenge. In this hymn, that challenge is particularly bold:
Christ is the brother we still crucify,
his love the language we must learn, or die.
This echoes Hebrews 6:6, a reminder that “those who have fallen away . . . are crucifying Christ all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (NIV). Galatians 2:20a also draws upon this theme: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (NIV).
The hymn was first published in In Every Corner, Sing (Wellington, 1987). It first appeared in the United States in The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990), followed by Murray’s initial collection of her hymns, In Every Corner Sing: the Hymns of Shirley Erena Murray (Hope Publishing Company, 1992). Since then, the hymn has appeared in seven other hymnals in the USA, UK, and New Zealand. Two revisions were made to the original lyrics in the third stanza, line 1, ‘the One’ for ‘your Son’, and line 3, ‘Christ’s’ for ‘his’.
The tune used for Murray’s text when it was first published was SONG 1 (1623) by Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625), a leading English composer during his time. Though this pairing was maintained in earlier publications, American hymnal editors sought newly composed tunes. The New Century Hymnal (1995) pairs the text with ROSEBERRY (1994) by Bruce Neswick (b. 1956). The Chalice Hymnal (1995) uses RAUMATI BEACH (1994) by Dan Damon (b. 1955), aptly named for a coastal community on the north island of New Zealand where the author lived.
The tune TODOS LOS COLORES (All the Colors) was introduced first in the Hymns of Truth and Light (Houston, 1998) prepared by the First Congregational Church in Houston, Texas, where the composer of this tune, Margaret R. Tucker (b. 1936), was one of the two general editors. (Daw, 2016, p. 725) This tune was adopted for use in Glory to God (2013). Naming this tune in Spanish is in harmony with the theme of this hymn in acknowledging diversity, which may have been purposefully taken from the second line of the first stanza. Set in minor tonality, this tune brings out the mood of lamentation over the current socio-political problem of racism.
Shirley Erena Murray was recognized for hymn writing. She received the New Zealand Order of Merit (2001) and was made a Fellow of the Royal School of Church Music (2006) and later a Fellow of the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada (2009). The same year, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Otago (2009). Hymnary.org lists nearly two hundred of her hymns spread over ninety-three collections and hymnals worldwide, with various themes ranging from the Christian year, sacraments, faith, social justice, and ecology. She passed away at Wellington Regional Hospital on January 25, 2020.
Daw, Jr, Carl P. Glory to God: A Companion. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
Colin Gibson, “John Stewart Murray,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-stewart-murray (accessed January 31, 2023).
_____, “Shirley Erena Murray,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/shirley-erena-murray (accessed January 31, 2023).
Shirley Erena Murray, In Every Corner Sing: The Hymns of Shirley Erena Murray (Carol Stream. Illinois: Hope Publishing Company, 1992).
Scripture verses marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Budi Taniwan is the Music and Worship Minister at Imanuel Methodist Church of Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in music (vocal and conducting) and philosophy and religion from Southwestern College (Winfield, Kansas) and a Master of Sacred Music (Choral Conducting) from Perkins School Theology, Southern Methodist University. He is a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program at Perkins School of Theology, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.
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