Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'We Utter Our Cry'

History of Hymns: 'We Utter Our Cry'

By C. Michael Hawn

Fred Kaan headshot
Fred Kaan

“We Utter Our Cry”
by Fred Kaan
The United Methodist Hymnal, 439

We utter our cry: that peace may prevail!
That earth will survive and faith must not fail.
We pray with our life for the world in our care,
for people diminished by doubt and despair.*

*© 1984 Hope Publishing Co. Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

For complete text, see https://www.hopepublishing.com/find-hymns-hw/hw3579.aspx.

Hymnologists often place Frederick Herman Kaan (1929–2009) at the center of the “hymnic explosion” that took place in the last four decades of the twentieth century in Great Britain. Though he rightfully takes his place alongside Fred Pratt Green (1903–2000), Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), and Brian Wren (b. 1936) as the leaders of a new wave of hymnody that spoke with fresh energy and relevancy to the church, Kaan was the only one of the four born outside the UK (Haarlem, Holland) and, thus, wrote his hymns in a second language. The German occupation of Holland (1940–45) shaped his childhood, his family sheltering a young Jewish woman. Three of his grandparents died of starvation as the war ended (Oestreicher, 2009, n.p.).

Following his initial study at the University of Utrecht (1949–52) in theology and psychology, he enrolled at Bristol University, studying theology (1952–54) and sociology and pastoral theology (1954–55). His ordination was with the Congregational Union in England and Wales (1955) and, later, in the United Reformed Church. He wrote his early hymns and some of his best-known hymns while serving congregations in South Wales (1955–63) and Plymouth (1963–68).

Kaan’s vocation took an international turn when he was elected Minister-Secretary of the International Congregational Council (1968–70) and Executive Secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (1970–78), the latter position in Geneva. His heart was with the local congregational ministry, however. After returning to Great Britain to serve as the Moderator of the West Midlands Province of the United Reformed Church (1978–85), he concluded his active ministry as the pastor of Central Church, Swindon (1985–1989), an ecumenical parish (Luff, Canterbury Dictionary, n.p.). Luff’s retirement included freelance hymn writing, translating, lecturing, and editing.

Fred Kaan began writing hymns during his years at Plymouth. As was the case of several hymn writers during this era, his initial efforts were because he could not find hymns that met the concerns of his preaching and ministry. His biographer, Jillian Warson, notes:

Fred started to write hymns after only a few weeks at his new post [Plymouth] and found himself, quite unwittingly, part of what Erik Routley [1917–1982] described as the “hymn explosion” of the 1960s. Having been given total freedom by the church to explore new ways of worship and service, he suddenly found himself bored and frustrated by the lack of relevant material in published hymn books. . . Churches were full and there was a general consensus that the need to maintain traditions was paramount. Hymns were sung to broad, familiar tunes and the words were often sentimental with a tinge of nostalgia. (Warson, 2006, pp. 54–55)

He published seventy hymns from the Plymouth years in Pilgrim Praise (London, 1968). Soon, Anglican and Methodist supplements included several of these early hymns, and Kaan was inspired to continue. One of these, “For the healing of the nations” (1965), subtitled “A Hymn for Human Rights” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 428), is his best-known and most widely sung hymn, appearing in more than fifty hymnals.

The prophetic language of this hymn disturbed some churchgoers in the early years. But Kaan, the vigorous pacifist, remained undaunted. In this later hymn, “We utter our cry” (1983), Kaan combined a fervent plea for peace with passion for the then-growing environmental movement. Olle Dahlen, Swedish Ambassador to the United Nations, requested a hymn for the opening service of the Christian World Conference on Life and Peace. After sending the text, Kaan attended the conference as a delegate and was present to hear it sung by several thousand people in the Uppsala Cathedral on April 20, 1983. Kaan notes:

The hymn was sung several times during the Conference and was finally included in the official Message which the delegates agreed upon on 23rd April. The tune to which it was sung, for “easy access,” was HANOVER by William Croft (1678–1727) . . . Sixty-two countries were represented at the Conference. (Kaan, 1985, p. 150)

Despite a stunning worldwide reception, “We utter our cry” finds its place in relatively few hymnals (three hymnals and one hymnal supplement, according to Hymnary.org). The hymn appeared in six stanzas in meter in The Hymn Texts of Fred Kaan (1985). This metrical structure allows Kaan to express his ideas in fuller phrases and more sweeping thoughts than the traditional Short, Common, or Long Meters.

Stanza 1 commences with a sense of urgency— “We utter our cry: that peace may prevail!” The opening line suggests a hymn on world peace—a successor to “For the healing of the nations” with its focus on international relationships and the rights of all people. Subsequent lines, however, steer the hymn in an unexpected direction. Kaan links world peace with the planet’s survival— “That earth will survive and faith must not fail. / We pray with our life for the world in our care, / for people diminished by doubt and despair.”

Stanza 2 maintains the intensity of the first: “We cry from the fright of our daily scene / for strength to say ‘No’ to all that is mean.” The second line is a direct, unvarnished rejection of human meanness—actions and attitudes that diminish, damage, and cause distress to individuals, genders, ethnic groups, and nations— “all that is mean.” In this case, the hymn writer does not engage us with an inspiring metaphor or a poetic turn of phrase. “Say ‘no’” is a common phrase—defiant and unequivocal. The poet calls the international leaders to account with an implied rhetorical statement: Why are you wasting “energy on weapons of death” that lead to “chaos [and the] extinction of life”?

Stanza 3 continues the hymn’s powerful petition: What kind of earth are we leaving for “children unborn”? We must “replenish and tend . . . this good planet earth, / preserv[e] the future and wonder of birth.” While implied in earlier stanzas, stanza 4 directly appeals to “statesmen conferring ‘round tables for peace / that they may from bias and guile be released.” The thread of resistance to “all that is mean” continues in stanza 5. The poet invites “Lord-Love” to join activists “in protest and march, / and help us to fire with passion your church.” The church must “match all our statements and lofty resolve / with being—unresting—in action involved.” Though passionate about peace and the planet’s survival, the poet reminds the singer that we protest not out of anger but in solidarity with the Lord of Love.

The “political” nature of stanzas 3, 4, and 5 may be why this hymn is omitted from most hymnals. Fred Kaan calls the church to account for its inability to speak to the most urgent human crisis—the planet’s survival—in political and public areas. The final stanza calls upon the church to seek peace with every fiber of our personal and ecclesial beings:

Whatever the ill or pressure we face,
Lord, hearten and heal, give insight and grace
to think and make peace with each heartbeat and breath,
choose Christ before Caesar and life before death.

© 1984 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

In this stanza, Kaan exegetes Christ’s command to “render unto Caesar that things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:15–22; Mark 12:16–17; Luke 20:22–26).

One of the reasons that this hymn may not appear in hymnals is that the author refused to have the hymn published unless all stanzas appeared. Hymnal editors are often hesitant to include hymns with more than four stanzas. In this case, it is possible that a hymnal committee, though appreciative of Kaan’s bold and articulate stand linking world peace and earth care, would find the polemical language too strident for congregations. The Hymnal Revision Committee for The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) is a case in point. According to hymnal editor Carlton R. (“Sam”) Young, the committee wished to delete stanzas 4 and 5, as they did not want to “appear to encourage ‘unpatriotic’ peace and anti-nuclear arms protests and marches.” This omission lessened the impact of the final line of the final stanza cited above.

Young quotes from Kaan’s response to the committee’s request:

I cannot agree to you leaving out verses that commit us to protest and demonstration, and to following our (usually) mealy-mouthed church resolutions on peace with an active involvement in the peace movement. Peace is something that has to be pursued. [Italics in original] . . . No, Sam, no, the hymn must go in completely, or not at all. All that is left is prayer, and I believe that prayer is no good without action. (Young, 1993, p. 682)

To the credit of the Hymnal’s editor, the hymn was included in its entirety, though with minor changes: “Lord-Love” was modified to “Lord; love” (5:1), “earth” to “Earth” (3:3), and “statesmen” to “leaders” (4:3). An asterisk indicates that stanzas 4 and 5 may be omitted. The Baptist Hymnal (1991) includes stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 6, and the Universalist Unitarian collection, Singing the Living Tradition (1993), provides stanzas 1, 2, and 3, both hymnals perhaps without permission of the author.

The United Methodist Hymnal pairs the text with PADERBORN (1765), harmonized by English cathedral organist Sydney Hugo Nicholson (1875–1947). The Baptist Hymnal pairs its four stanzas with LYONS, a well-known tune found in William Gardiner’s Sacred Melodies (1815). Sing the Living Tradition sets its three stanzas with a melody by British lecturer and hymn tune writer Peter Cutts (b. 1937), named for the location of the hymn’s premier, UPPSALA. Kaan’s text with Cutts’s tune was one of eight winning entries in the BBC hymn-writing competition and included in the television broadcast, “Songs of Praise Festival, 1985.”


Fred Kaan, Pilgrim Praise: Hymns by Fred Kaan (London: Galliard—Stainer & Bell, 1972).

_____, The Hymn Texts of Fred Kaan (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1985).

Alan Luff, “Frederik Kaan,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press: http://www.hymnology.co.uk/f/frederik-kaan (accessed August 20, 2022).

Paul Oestreicher, “Crusader Against Injustice Wrote Hymns in Praise of Peace,” The Sydney Morning Herald (October 30, 2009), https://www.smh.com.au/national/crusader-against-injustice-wrote-hymns-in-praise-of-peace-20091029-hnl2.html (accessed August 22, 2022).

Gillian R. Warson, Healing the Nations: Fred Kaan—the Man and his Hymns (London: Stainer & Bell, 2006).

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

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.

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