"Forward Through Ages" emerges from the early social gospel movement
“Forward Through the Ages”
Frederick Lucian Hosmer
UM Hymnal, No. 555
Forward through the ages,
in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits
at the call divine;
gifts in differing measure,
hearts of one accord,
manifold the service,
one the sure reward.
It is difficult to sing this hymn tune (ST. GERTRUDE) without thinking of the text most associated with it, “Onward Christian Soldiers”—a divisive hymn among United Methodists.
But where “Onward Christian Soldiers” promotes an aggressive, triumphal faith, “Forward Through the Ages” is, according to UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton R. Young, a “turn-of-the-century, forward-looking social gospel hymn.”
Dr. Young notes that the use of ST. GERTRUDE for this text “reflects the Hymnal Revision Committee’s intention for the tune to be sung to a less controversial text.”
Frederick Lucian Hosmer (1840-1929) was a Harvard-trained Unitarian minister. Known for his interest in hymns and worship, he served congregations in Massachusetts, Illinois, Missouri and California. The Thought of God in Hymns and Poems (1918) contains 50 of his hymns.
Eminent British hymnologist John Julian noted in 1896: “Amongst Unitarian hymn writers of the last twenty years Mr. Hosmer is the most powerful and original known to us.”
Though he displayed an aptitude for poetry at a young age, most of Hosmer’s hymns were written after he turned 40.
Dr. Young notes that this hymn’s “Unitarian theology is optimistic (“wider grows the kingdom”), vague (“shining goal”), without a Christology.”
Hymnologist William J. Reynolds (1920-2009) noted that the poet wrote the hymn in 1908 for the installation of a minister for the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley, Calif.
Stanza one establishes a kind of apostolic succession of “faithful spirits” who move “forward through the ages, in unbroken line. . . .” The faithful are responding to the “call divine.” Though they are of “one accord,” the faithful have “gifts in differing measure.”
Stanza two introduces a “Wider grow[ing] . . . kingdom.” In this kingdom, “we must labor” for a “reign of love and light. . . .” This kingdom has a heritage based on the witness of “prophets [who] have proclaimed it” and “martyrs [who have] testified.” “Poets [have] sung” and “heroes [have] died.” This litany of those who have preceded us is a classic hymnic pattern to establish authority and heritage.
The third stanza continues the triumphal language with key words such as “conquer.” In the third stanza, we finally encounter the Deity as we are “Bound for God’s far purpose.” The faithful “move . . . on together to the [unspecified] shining goal.”
The social gospel hymn was the product of the turn-of-the-20th-century theology that expressed optimism and the evolving perfection of humanity. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) solidified the social gospel in his volume Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907). Dr. Young notes, “By the 1930s the social gospel hymn had become the marching song of liberal Protestantism in the United States. . . .”
Though vaguer in its goals, “Forward Through the Ages” bears the unmistakable imprint of the early years of this movement. His optimism and progressive hope for an ever evolving humanity places Hosmer alongside other hymnists including Congregationalist Washington Gladden (“O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee,” No. 430), Methodist Frank Mason North (“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life,” No. 427), and Episcopalian Walter Russell Bowie (“O Holy City, Seen of John,” No. 726).