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History of Hymns: "Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death"

"Awake, O Sleeper, Rise from Death"
F. Bland Tucker
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 551

Awake, O sleeper, rise from death,
and Christ shall give you light;
so learn his love, its length and breadth,
its fullness, depth, and height.*

“Awake, O sleeper, rise from death” is one of many creative hymn texts written by the man thought of as the “American Dean of hymn writers,” the Rev. Francis Bland Tucker, a 20th-century Episcopal minister, translator and hymn writer.

F. Bland Tucker (1895-1984) was born in Norfolk, Va., on the Feast of the Epiphany, Jan. 6, to the Rev. Beverly Dandridge Tucker and Anna Maria Washington.

Tucker was educated at the University of Virginia and the Virginia Theological Seminary. He served as an operating room assistant in World War I. In 1920, at the age of 25, he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and served for 20 years as rector of St. John’s Church, Georgetown.

In his last 20 years, he was a rector of Christ Church in Savannah, Ga., pointing out many times that he was in fact a successor to John Wesley in that position.

Hymnologist Raymond Glover, in his article “The Wesley Mantle O’re Tucker Cast,” describes Tucker as a “very sensitive poet who was able to get into the very being of the original writer and to create a new work which had its own integrity.”

One of Tucker’s most popular hymn texts is “Awake, O sleeper, rise from death.” This text was not originally written for a hymn, but was commissioned as a text for a choral anthem in February 1980 by David N. Johnson, set for mixed chorus with organ and optional parts for trumpet, handbells, timpani and congregation.

The text first appeared in The Hymnal 1982 and is also printed in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and Worship, 3rd ed. (USA, Catholic, 1986). The texts in each hymnal are all sung to the tune MARSH CHAPEL, written by Max Miller in 1984.

“Awake, O Sleeper” is based on Ephesians 5:14 and other portions of Paul’s letter. Tucker wrote of this text: “The first two lines (Eph. 5:14) are a quotation from a very ancient Christian hymn, probably. There is no copy of it in existence; so I filled it out with quotations from other verses in the epistle.”

Tucker takes chapters 3, 4 and 5 from the epistle as his source and uses it to create themes of God’s redemption and “a charge to all people to follow the way of Christ.” This text is usually placed in the category of Christian Vocation and Pilgrimage, but Tucker felt it was also appropriate for Baptism.

Throughout the text Tucker uses the poetic device of antithesis, juxtaposing the ideas of “awake” and “death,” died” and save,” and “lived” and “died.” Tucker is reminding us that through Jesus Christ, death turns into life. He also personifies “love,” treating it as though it is an object that can only be measured in “length, breadth, fullness, depth, and height.”

The third stanza builds a climax as Tucker repeats the word “one,” gaining intensity with each separate “part” of the Christian faith, for there is only “one Lord, one faith, and one Baptism, one Father for us all.”

In stanza four, Tucker leaves us with a call to Christian service as he asks us to “walk in love as Christ has loved, with kind and gentle hearts [forgiving] as Christ forgave.” Tucker ends with a closing antiphon similar to the first antiphon, framing the entire text. Stanza 1 opens with:

Awake, O Sleeper, rise form death,
And Christ shall give you light.

The last stanza conveys a similar theme, utilizing word play. Contrasting the two antiphons, it is detected that “rise from death” becomes “arise, go forth,” and “light” becomes “life.”

Awake, arise, go forth in faith,
And Christ shall give you life.

Tucker was a fine wordsmith and a minister of social change in the world. He had a remarkable faith and love for the church; consequently, he felt his hymns were meant to be a tool for praise and thanksgiving, for praise and thanksgiving should be “at the very heart of Christianity.”

*© 1980 Augsburg Publishing House. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Laura Bertwell is a Master of Sacred Music candidate at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, and a hymnology student of Dr. Michael Hawn.