History of Hymns: 'The Lord Bless You and Keep You'
By C. Michael Hawn
“The Lord Bless You and Keep You”
Text: Numbers 6:24–26
Music: Peter C. Lutkin
Songs of Zion, 239
The Lord bless you and keep you;
The Lord lift his countenance upon you,
and give you peace;
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious unto you. Amen.
Peter Christian Lutkin (1858–1931), a Midwesterner born in Wisconsin, spent virtually all his life in the Chicago area. Most of his early music education occurred in Chicago as a chorister at St. Peter and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. He began his organ study at age twelve, learning the “new wave of organ music that prevailed in Episcopal Churches in America” (Yardley, Canterbury Dictionary). From 1881–1884, Lutkin followed the practice of many serious composers and performers by studying in Europe. His years abroad took him to Berlin, Vienna, and Paris.
Upon his return, he served as organist at St. Clement’s (1884–1891) and St. James’s (1891–1897) parishes. During this time, he became a charter member of the American Guild of Organists (1896) and began his teaching career at Northwestern University in 1891. At the university, he formed the music conservatory into a department in the College of Liberal Arts and, later, as a separate School of Music, for which he served as dean (1895–1928). During his last two years of teaching, he established a Department of Church and Choral Music.
Church music was a primary passion for Lutkin. He delivered the Hale Lectures in 1908–1909 at Western Theological Seminary (later, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary), an institution of the Episcopal Church, in Evanston, Illinois. These lectures were the basis for his well-regarded Music in the Church (Milwaukee, 1910). Three premises undergirded his philosophy of church music: training prospective clergy in church music, the need to relate church music to the theme of the liturgy, and the beauty and importance of a cappella singing. His musical endeavors and publications reflected these goals.
In 1906, Lutkin established the Northwestern A Cappella Choir, a choral ensemble with a substantial commitment to Renaissance music that had not previously been published in the United States. He published Hymn-Singing and Hymn-Playing (1930). He was influenced by hymnologist Waldo Selden Pratt (1857–1939), a leading American music historian of his day. Lutkin influenced F. Melius Christiansen (1871–1955), who established St. Olaf College Choir in 1912, and John Finley Williamson (1887–1984), who organized the Westminster Choir in 1920, placing him among the most influential church and choral musicians of his day. “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” has remained a favorite benediction of the Westminster College Choir since its founding, as witnessed by numerous YouTube recordings. (See, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4C9zVg5X_A.)
As a hymnologist, Lutkin served in an editorial capacity for three hymnals: musical co-editor of The Methodist Hymnal (New York/Cincinnati, 1905) with Latin Professor and church organist Karl Harrington (1861–1953), The Methodist Sunday School Hymnal (New York, 1911), and Select Hymns and Carols (Chicago, 1930). It was in The Methodist Hymnal
(1905), the official collection of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, that Lutkin’s best-known church music composition first appeared in a congregational collection in the section “Chants and Occasional Pieces” (no. 748):
The Chicago publisher, C.F. Summy (later Summy-Birchard), carried the original copyright, publishing it as a “Farewell Anthem with Sevenfold Amen” in 1900 in a choral octavo form (Fenner, Hymnology Archive) and in several later editions. Though published with organ accompaniment, the instrument doubles the vocal parts and “May be omitted, if desired,” in keeping with Lutkin’s preference for a cappella music.
The text, from Numbers 6:24–26, has a long tradition in Jewish liturgy and is perhaps the standard for benedictions delivered at the conclusion of Protestant worship services. The following excerpt places the “Priestly Blessing” or “Aaronic Benediction” in the context of the surrounding verses as found in the King James Authorized Version:
22 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 23Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, On this wise ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, 24 The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: 25 The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: 26The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. 27And they shall put my name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them.
Interestingly, Lutkin substitutes “you” for the older form— “thee.” This change may have been the result of his preference for a purer choral sound. “You” is a more euphonious vowel than “thee.” He also reverses the order of the original verses 25 and 26 (see Lutkin’s text at the beginning of this article). While hymnals continue to carry the entire composition, many only include the seven-fold Amen.
Peter Lutkin’s obituary in The Musical Times (February 1, 1932) noted his “Danish descent” and that “As an organist, choral conductor, teacher, and composer, he was one of the most distinguished musicians in America. . . [who] greatly stimulated the practice of choral music.”
Chris Fenner, “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” Hymnology Archive, https://www.hymnologyarchive.com/the-lord-bless-you-and-keep-you (accessed August 3, 2022).
“Peter C. Lutkin (1858–1931),” Library of Congress Biographies, https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200185357 (accessed August 3, 2022).
Obituary, “Peter Christian Lutkin,” The Musical Times 73, No. 1068 (February 1, 1932), 175. https://www.jstor.org/stable/914479 (accessed August 3, 2022).
Anne Bagnall Yardley, “Peter Lutkin,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/p/peter-lutkin (accessed August 3, 2022).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.