History of Hymns: “‘Are Ye Able,’ said the Master”

by C. Michael Hawn

"'Are Ye Able,' said the Master"
Earl Marlatt
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 530

Earl Marlatt

“Are ye able,” said the Master,
“to be crucified with me?”
“Yes,” the sturdy dreamers answered,
“to the death we follow thee.”
Lord, we are able. Our spirits are thine.
Remold them, make us, like thee, divine.
Thy guiding radiance above us shall be
a beacon to God, to love, and loyalty.

“Are ye able” is a thoroughly Methodist hymn. Originally in six stanzas, the hymn was written for a service to consecrate the School of Religious Education at Boston University in 1926, the title being “Challenge.” Five stanzas were published in The American Student Hymnal in 1928. Since 1935 the hymn has appeared mostly in Methodist or United Methodist hymnals. 

United Methodist Bishop John Wesley Hardt, former Bishop in Residence at Perkins School of Theology, places this hymn in the context of its time: “Toward the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th century, the dreams of ‘the coming Kingdom of God’ inspired the YMCA and YWCA as well as the vision of ‘The Evangelization of the World in Our World in Our Generation.’ A companion spirit inspired many young people to volunteer for service in the first great World War with the motto ‘to make the world safe for democracy.’” 

“Are Ye Able” quickly captured the spirit of young people who were attending Methodist assemblies and camps for three decades beginning in the 1930s. 

According to Methodist hymnologist and hymnal editor Robert Guy McCuthan, the poet set out to tie together two biblical scenes from the passion of Christ. In Mark 10:35-40, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Christ, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left hand in glory.” 

Jesus responds, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They respond to Jesus, “We are able.” 

The second scene comes from Luke 23:39-43 where Christ addresses the two thieves on either side of him at the crucifixion. While one thief taunts Christ, the other requests, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ responds, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Earl Bowman Marlatt (1892-1976) was the son of a Methodist minister, trained at DePauw University and Boston University with additional study at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Berlin. He taught philosophy at Boston University from 1925 to 1938 and served as dean of the University from 1938-1945. 

He then taught philosophy of religion and religious literature at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University from 1846-1957. Until the renovation of Perkins Chapel in 1998-1999, a small prayer chapel in the north transept was named for him. 

Following his time at SMU, Marlatt was the curator of the Treasure Room and Hymn Museum at the Interchurch Center, New York City. He wrote several volumes of poetry and was the associate editor of The American Student Hymnal

The music was composed by Harry Mason (1881-1964), a student at Boston University’s School of Religious Education. Musically, the stanzas are reminiscent of a march while the rousing refrain, typical of gospel hymnody, has received some criticism for its unusual length. 

Nevertheless, one can imagine that the hymn inspired many young people to Christian service in the early to mid-20th century. Bishop Hardt confirms this: “Mere words cannot begin to recapture the power and abiding love which the familiar words ‘Are Ye Able’ brought to generations of Methodist young people. Perhaps young persons in generations yet to come may again find the eternal spirit of Christ speaking to them through these inspiring words.”
 

© 1987 Oxford University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

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