History of Hymns: “Creating God, Your Fingers Trace”
By C. Michael Hawn
"Creating God, Your Fingers Trace"
by Jeffery Rowthorn
The United Methodist Hymnal, 109
Creating God, your fingers trace
the bold designs of farthest space;
let sun and moon and stars and light
and what lies hidden praise your might.*
* Copyright © 1979 by The Hymn Society of America (Admin. Hope Publishing Co.)
Imagine that the first hymn you ever wrote won a contest. Then imagine your surprise that you won the contest, even through you were unaware that the hymn had been submitted on your behalf! Jeffery Rowthorn (b. 1934), a native of Wales and bishop suffragan in the Episcopal Church in the United States, had just that experience. The following is his account of the composition of this hymn text:
My first hymn, written in 1974, was in fulfillment of an assignment that I had given the students in a contemporary worship course at Yale Divinity School: compose a new psalm paraphrase. I had never done this myself, so I chose Psalm 148 and some years later my paraphrase was one of two winning texts in the 1979 Hymn Society of America’s “New Psalms for Today” competition (Rowthorn, 29).
The hymn was subsequently published in the Hymn Society’s journal The Hymn (April 1979) and in Laudamus (1980), a supplement used for daily chapel worship at Yale Divinity School.
"Creating God" explores active images of the work of God. Because each stanza starts with a participle, the singer is drawn not into a God of history whose work is complete, but a God whose work is ongoing in myriad ways. Successive stanzas begin with "Sustaining God," "Redeeming God," and “Indwelling God.” The complete text may be found at https://hymnary.org/text/creating_god_your_fingers_trace.
The hymn does not fall neatly into a threefold, Trinitarian pattern. Indeed, it is based on a psalm. Yet the work of the Trinity is apparent in the modifiers "creating," "redeeming," and "sustaining" — images that some have used as alternative language for the Trinity.
The text is a paraphrase of Psalm 148. Ray Glover, editor of the Episcopal The Hymnal 1982, notes that this hymn “illustrates the ongoing vitality of the psalm paraphrase as a rich form. In language rich and vivid, the poet has recast this ancient Old Testament hymn in a form that speaks directly to the modern worshipper while retaining the spirit and intent of the original" (Glover, 747),
Those who read Psalm 148 may not initially see the relationship between Rowthorn’s text and the psalm. Indeed, the fourteen verses of Scripture are compacted into four long meter (188.8.131.52) stanzas. This hymn is not a metrical version of a psalm that follows the original psalm through verse by verse. For this classic approach, see the metrical version of Psalm 23 found in the Scottish Psalter (1650), “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 136). This paraphrase is much freer and brings the psalm to life for our time. The relationship between the “Creating God” of stanza one and Psalm 148 is quite evident, especially in verses 1-4.
“Sustaining God” is reflected throughout creation, but especially in the “water’s fragile [that] blend with air,/enabling life, proclaim your care.” Verses 5 and 6 establish God’s plan both for the natural created order, and verses 7-12, God’s care for flora and creatures of all kinds.
“Redeeming God” has a Christological ring to it, reminding us of the redemptive work of God’s Son. While this may seem a stretch with an Old Testament psalm, Rowthorn is following in the shoes of the master paraphraser of the psalms, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), who regularly “Christianized” his versions of the psalter. Recall, for example, Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 72 that begins, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun . . . “. (The United Methodist Hymnal, 157)
Perhaps Rowthorn is most like Watts in how he makes the message of a psalm universal. The original psalm text speaks of the “children of Israel” in the Book of Common Prayer translation in verse 14. Rowthorn broadens the recipients of God’s care to “one family with a billion names” (stanza 4). The final couplet takes a “grace”-ful eschatological turn:
Let every life be touched by grace
until we praise you face to face.
The poet states several underlying objectives in his preparation of this text:
- to use inclusive language throughout and in particular by addressing each stanza to God;
- to depict the ongoing and unceasing activity of each Person of the Trinity by using present participles . . . rather than static descriptive nouns;
- to evoke awe and wonder and the recognition that our knowledge of the universe remains at best partial;
- to emphasize the radical barrier-free love of God for all . . .. (Rowthorn, 29)
The hymn was unknowingly submitted for a hymn contest sponsored by The Hymn Society of America on the theme “New Psalms for Today” in 1979. It was one of two winning hymns. The author composed the text for the tune DE TAR by American composer Calvin Hampton (1938-1984), but recognizes that a number of other long meter tunes used with the hymn are also quite effective. The sturdy minor/modal KEDRON (a variation of Cedron in John 18:1 (KJV) or Kidron), is the tune used in The United Methodist Hymnal and the most commonly used tune in other hymnals. It first appeared in The United States’ Sacred Harmony (1799), edited by Amos Pilsbury, but was later attributed to Elkanah Kelsay Dare (1782-1826) in the famous (John) Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music: Part Second (1813). Dare was a Presbyterian pastor who died in Pennsylvania.
Bishop Rowthorn was born in Wales. His education includes the institutions of Cambridge, Oxford, Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Cuddeson Theological College, Oxford. Ordained in 1963 as a priest in the Church of England, he served as curate and then rector of churches in London and Oxford. In 1973, after serving as dean of instruction and chaplain at Union Seminary, he was a founding faculty member of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University. At Yale, he served as minister to the chapel of the Divinity School. In 1987, he was consecrated as a bishop suffragan of Connecticut. He then became Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, with his office at the American Cathedral in Paris, retiring in 2001.
His hymnological credits include editing two hymnals, Laudamus: Services and Songs of Praise (1980) and, with Russell Schulz-Widmar (b. 1944), A New Hymnal for Colleges and Schools — sometimes called The Yale Hymnal (1992). Rowthorn and Schulz-Widmar teamed up for a second collection, Sing of the World Made New: New Hymns of Justice, Peace, and Christian Responsibility (2014). Singing Songs of Expectations: Food for Today’s Pilgrims (2007) is a single-author, containing only Rowthorn’s hymns. He is also the author of a worship resource, The Wideness of God's Mercy (1995), a collection of 150 litanies, compiled and adapted for ecumenical public worship.
Bishop Rowthorn and his wife Anne were honored by the Convocation of American Churches in Europe with the establishment of the "Jeffery and Anne Rowthorn Endowment Fund for Mission in Europe." The Rowthorn Fund is dedicated to supporting youth ministry and new mission congregations in the Convocation.
Glover, Raymond F., ed. The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Vol. 3B (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1994).
Rowthorn, Jeffery. Singing Songs of Expectations: Food for Today’s Pilgrims (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 2007).
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 at Southern Methodist University.