Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young'

History of Hymns: 'The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young'

By Hannah Cruse

“The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young”
The United Methodist Hymnal, 118
by R. Deane Postlethwaite

The care the eagle gives her young,
safe in her lofty nest,
is like the tender love of God
for us made manifest.

Eagles soar through the clouds with the appearance of serenity, majesty, and purpose. Scripture frequently takes up the imagery of eagles – birds that can be both protector and destroyer. In Isaiah 40:31, “those who wait for the Lord . . . shall mount up with wings like eagles” and never tire (NSRV). In Hosea 8:1, a predatory eagle looms over the house of the Lord because the people have rebelled against God’s laws. And in Jeremiah 49:16, God threatens to bring down transgressors, even though they have built their nests “as high as the eagle’s” (NSRV). But Deuteronomy 32:11–12 reminds us that nothing the eagle does – in the name of protection, destruction, or otherwise – is done without the guidance of God.

United Methodist pastor R. Deane Postlethwaite (1925—1980) was inspired by the passage from Deuteronomy 32. The text depicts a mother eagle, like God, hovering over its young until they are mature enough to fly:

He found him in a desert land;
in the waste howling wilderness.
He shielded him.
He cared for him.
He kept him as the apple of his eye.

As an eagle stirs up her nest,
that flutters over her young,
he spread abroad his wings,
he took them,
he bore them on his feathers,
Yahweh alone led him.
There was no foreign god was with him. (Deuteronomy 32:10-12, WEB)

God’s love encourages us to “strive for daring height,” and if we fail, “beneath us lift God's mighty wings / to bear us, one and all.” The tender metaphor illuminates God as a maternal figure, an element of nature, and an affectionate leader.

“The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young” (1980) efficaciously pairs new poetry with old music in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). The simple but alluring nineteenth-century common meter tune CRIMOND in F Major with an 8.6.8.6. rhyme scheme accompanies the reassuring. With its lofty imagery and predictable a-b-c-b rhyme scheme, Postlethwaite’s poem easily unites with the soaring melody of CRIMOND. The background stories of both the tune CRIMOND and the text of the hymn bring to light an authorship dispute and controversy over language inclusivity respectively.

Crimond
Figure 1. CRIMOND from The Northern Psalter (1872)

Controversy envelops the tune CRIMOND. Determining authorship remains a quandary. In The Northern Psalter and Hymn Tune Book, where the tune first appeared in 1872, David Grant (1833-1893) acquired credit as the composer. His name clearly appears above the tune in the image below (where CRIMOND is paired with a different text). However, a young woman named Anna Irvine claimed that her sister, Jessie Seymour Irvine (1836-1887), penned the tune, and that Grant only harmonized it (Johnson, 38). Ms. Jessie Seymour Irvine was born the daughter of a Church of Scotland minister who worked in the town of Crimond, Scotland (Ewan, 180). I have found no records that trace how the compositional responsibilities were divided between Grant and Irvine or how Grant came to possess the tune in the first place. We know only that Irvine probably thought up the tune as an exercise for an organists’ class that she attended in Banff, Canada, while she was still a teenager (Bradley, 143).

The Scottish Psalter (1929) was the first hymnal to attribute authorship of CRIMOND to Irvine. By the 1950s, most hymnals were giving authorial credit to both Irvine and Grant. The United Methodist Hymnal, adopting the harmonization by T.C.L. Pritchard (1885-1960) from The Scottish Psalter, simply names Irvine as composer. If David Grant or the editors of The Northern Psalter truly did disregard Irvine’s contribution to CRIMOND, we are looking at yet another example of sexism in the history of music publishing. Eminent British hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982) notes:

[This] is the only Scottish psalm tune known to have been written by a woman, and did not see print until it had been harmonized (differently) by an Aberdeen tobaccoist named David Grant who was also a precentor. One way and another this now exceedingly popular tune is the most anomalous and unusual of all Scottish tunes; and it is musically unusual in being the only one in the repertory to make use of “sequence” [a repeated melodic pattern] – which it does in its third line (Routley, 85).

Female composers in the nineteenth century often wrote pseudonymously under male pen names so that publishers would take their work seriously. Thankfully, hymnal editors now make efforts to include and solicit hymns by women. This practice greatly enriches the Christian canon of song.

The poem was posthumously published in the author’s Eight Hymns, In Context (1980) under the title “For a Recognition of God’s Feminine Attributes.” Postlethwaite, a Kansas native, received his education from the University of Kansas (B.A. 1947; M.A. 1948), Union Theological Seminary (M.Div. 1956), and United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, MN (D.Min. 1979). He taught political science at Baker University, Baldwin, KS (1948-1951) [Young, 814]. From an obituary about his wife, Marjean, we learn that Postlethwaite “was ordained as a deacon in 1956 and as an elder in 1958” in The United Methodist Church, serving churches “in the Twin Cities area (Prospect Park, Good Samaritan, and Minnehaha)” [Minnesota Annual Conference, n.p.]. He also served other congregations in Kansas and New York. As a poet-pastor, Postlethwaite noted that he wrote hymns that were “related to the lives of the people who sing [them] and to the acts of prayer, praise, preaching and Bible reading that precede or follow” (cited in Young, 814).

Postlethwaite’s poem challenged the comfort zone of United Methodists in 1989 upon the publication of its new hymnal that year. Carlton R. Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, noted that this “was one of the first hymns to use female imagery and metaphors in descriptions and forms of address to God” (Young, 626). When The United Methodist Hymnal came out, some Methodists despised its gender neutral language—a poetic departure and theological shift from earlier hymnals. “The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young” represents one such contentious hymn due to its imaginative characterization of God (Goldman, n.p.). Postlewaithe was aware of the possible waves that his hymn might make, even though he died in 1980, nearly a decade before The United Methodist Hymnal was published:

I was disappointed to learn, after the hymn was written, that the Revised Standard Version [1952] (which is noncommittal as to the sex of the eagle) or the Jerusalem Bible [1966] (which says it is a father eagle) may be better translations of the original Hebrew. . . . I do not claim an exhaustive knowledge of the nesting habits of eagles, nor do I know how to evaluate the male chauvinist inclinations of ancient Hebrew writers; but I still would maintain that I find a deep meaning and power in the image of God who, like a mother eagle, pushes me from her nest, but who catches me, bears me up, when I fall (cited in Young, 626).

Methodists today are perhaps more receptive to this hymn, as ecumenical endeavors have stridently pushed for inclusive language over the past several decades. The pairing of this tune and text brings to the surface a nagging issue in the history of hymnology: the difficulty of women poets and composers to receive recognition and the resistance of congregations to broaden their image of God to include images beyond classic male stereotypes.

“The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young” paired with CRIMOND is, unfortunately, found in very few hymnals. The tune and text inspire rousing singing and contemplation of God’s loving power. Hopefully more congregations will begin to see the beauty and value in this overlooked, yet auspicious hymn.

Additional Reading and Sources

Ian C. Bradley, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns (London: Faber Finds, 2010).

Elizabeth Ewan, et al., The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women: From the Earliest Times to 2004 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

L. Ari Goldman, “New Methodist Hymnal Is Shorn of Stereotypes,” The New York Times (June 20, 1989). Accessed April 11, 2019.

https://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/20/nyregion/new-methodist-hymnal-is-shorn-of-stereotypes.html.

Ronald Johnson, “How Far Is It to Crimond?” Hymn Society Bulletin, XII no. 176 (July 1988): 38.

Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. “Marjean Carr Postlethwaite.” Accessed April 11, 2019. https://www.minnesotaumc.org/obituary/marjean-carr-postlethwaite-12777908.

Erik Routley, The Music of Christian Hymns (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 1983).

Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).


Hannah Cruse received a Master of Sacred Music degree (M.S.M. ’19) from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, where she studied hymnology with Dr. Marcell Steuernagel, director of the Sacred Music program.

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