Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'When Cain Killed Abel'

History of Hymns: 'When Cain Killed Abel'

by Beth R. Holzemer

3 1 keithahn horman
Mary Nelson Keithahn and John D. Horman

“When Cain Killed Abel”
By Mary Nelson Keithahn
The Faith We Sing, 2135

When Cain killed Abel in a fight,
and Jacob stole another’s right,
when Joseph’s brothers gave him chase,
God wept and mourned their fall from grace.*

* © 1998 Abingdon Press, admin. by www.musicservices.org. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The first stanza of this hymn cites three examples in the Old Testament where humanity fell from God’s grace by breaking family bonds: the narratives of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-17), resulting in Cain’s murder; Jacob stealing his brother Esau’s birthright (Genesis 27:1-40); and Joseph’s brothers who sold him into slavery (Genesis 37). God’s response was to weep and mourn the treachery of humanity, even within one’s family.

Mary Nelson Keithahn (b. 1934), the author, says this about the hymn:

The biblical faith is realistic in its view of human nature, especially in regard to broken relationships that occur in families as a result of selfishness, greed, pride, and other sinful behavior. [This texts] cite[s] three examples from the patriarchal narratives in Genesis, . . but could have included many others from the stories of the people of Israel and the New Testament Church. The multitude of broken relationships in the Bible would be depressing except for the fact that the biblical faith also witnesses to God’s compassionate tears for the failures of the people and the consequences they have to bear, as well as God’s forgiveness for those who truly repent their sins. This gives us hope that, when conflicts arise in our own families and in our church family today, God will weep for us too, and offer us another chance to live according to the way of love (Keithahn, 1998, 24).

In the Old Testament, God codifies God’s law in the form of the Ten Commandments, and the aforementioned offending brothers appear in violation of several – parental dishonor, covetousness, and murder, to name but a few. “When Cain Killed Abel” connects the dots from their fraternal malfeasance to our own like transgressions against our families, our churches, and our global communities. We continue to harbor jealousy. We blame others for our failures. We cling fiercely to our anger, resentment, and lies. God grieves our disobedience, but never fails to love us and forgive us. As God’s beloved children, we pray for reinstatement to our original, sinless, joy-filled condition before the Fall.

In his Small Catechism, theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546) helps expand our understanding of the Ten Commandments (Luther, n.p.) by asserting a corresponding positive behavior for each prohibition in the Decalogue. It is not enough simply to not murder a person. Rather, Luther states, “We should fear and love God, so that we do no bodily harm to our neighbor, but help and befriend him in every need.”

It is not enough not to lie. “We should fear and love God, so that we do not lie about, betray or slander our neighbor, but excuse him, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”

It is not enough to not take the Lord’s name in vain. Instead, Luther says, “We should fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice witchcraft, lie or deceive by His name, but call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks” (Luther, Small Catechism).

Luther pairs each “thou shalt not” with a “thou shalt” that binds us to go beyond the letter of the law. He calls us to real action that glorifies God and promotes the well-being of others above ourselves.

For each rule of law, Christ also counters with a simple, new commandment to love and serve. If we authentically love God and others – which Jesus declared to be the two greatest commandments (Mark 12:30-31) – the Commandments of the Old Testament become redundant. For how can we fail to honor our parents and parent figures, respecting their wisdom and caring for them as they age, if we are truly loving the Lord with every fiber of our being? How can we worship the gods of wealth and status when the one True God sacrificed all so that we might be free? Our Father’s love for us serves as the template for our loving in return. Romans 6:14 states, “Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace” (NLT). Christ proclaims us free to surrender our human bent to sinning in order to gain eternity. This surrender is anything but passive; instead, we cast aside our indolent self-serving behaviors and put ourselves to the self-sacrificing labor of the gospel.

Returning to the hymn, the second stanza of our hymn does not allow us to distance ourselves from the three narratives in Genesis, but reminds us that “in every family, small or great, / . . . jealously twists love to hate . . ..”

Stanza three broadens the discussion, reminding us that the Christian “family” – the church – is subject to divisions: “when brothers, sisters stand apart. . ..”

Our hymn concludes with a plan of action to begin our work. This plan of action is in the form of a prayer of intercession shaped by a series of imperative verbs (highlighted in bold below):

Good Christians, join in God’s lament,
Weep now and mourn be penitent,
and pray to God: Forgive us all.
Restore us as before the fall.*

Mary Nelson Keithahn collaborated with her longtime colleague, John D. Horman (b. 1946), to write the hymn “When Cain Killed Abel.” Keithahn is a retired United Church of Christ ordained pastor and church educator. She resides in Rapid City, South Dakota, where she continues to write. Horman, a retired music educator in Montgomery County, Maryland Public School System, served Warner Presbyterian Church in Kensington, Maryland, for forty-three years as organist and music director. He works as a curriculum writer-editor, clinician, journalist, and composer-lyricist for musical dramas and anthems, and he is the organist/director at First Congregational Church (UCC) in downtown Washington, D.C.

“When Cain Killed Abel” was first published in Time Now to Gather: New Hymns for the Church Family (Nashville, 1998) with Horman’s tune ABSOLUTION, a four-part canon. The editors of The Faith We Sing (2001) commissioned another tune for this text by John Horman, AFTER THE FALL (2000), for its inclusion in this collection. Horman and Keithahn have written more than one hundred hymns together, published in four collections. Abingdon Press published two collections of their hymns, including the one mentioned above and Come Away with Me: A Collection of New Hymns (Nashville, 1998). A third collection, The Song Lingers On: New Hymns for our Journey of Faith (Webster, New York, 2003), was published by Zimbel Press. A fourth collection, Faith That Lets Us Sing: Fifty New Hymns and Short Worship Songs (Colfax, North Carolina, 2016), was published by Wayne Leupold (Horman, “Keithahn,” n.p.).

Sources and Further Reading

John Horman. "Mary Nelson Keithahn." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 6, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/mary-nelson-keithahn.

“Hymns Etc.: Hymn Based Resources by John D. Horman and Mary Nelson Keithahn”: http://www.hymnsetc.com/index.html.

“Mary Nelson Keithahn and John D. Horman, Time Now to Gather: New Hymns for the Church Family (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).

Martin Luther, Small Catechism: Ten Commandments, https://els.org/beliefs/luthers-small-catechism/the-ten-commandments/.


Verses marked NLT are from the New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.


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.

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