History of Hymns: “Creator of the Earth and Skies”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Creator of the Earth and Skies"
by Donald Hughes
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 450

 

C. Michael Hawn

 

Creator of the earth and skies,
to whom all truth and power belong,
grant us your truth to make us wise;
grant us your power to make us strong*

Hymn writers in the last half of the twentieth century often produced very prophetic hymns. The optimism immediately following the Second World War soon gave way to continued global conflict, political unrest, and urban blight. These events called for hymns that not only praised God, but also brought the struggles of the streets into the sanctuary.

This movement began in the early twentieth century with hymns written in the fervor of the social gospel movement, such as “Where cross the crowded ways of life” by American Methodist minister Frank Mason North (1850-1935). By the second half of the century, both the number of hymns and their stridency increased. “When the church of Jesus” by British Methodist minister Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) had a tone that was much more “in your face.”

At the same time, the 1960s represented astounding technological advances including space flight and placing men on the moon. Some hymn writers felt that these technological advances, while indicative of human ingenuity, masked greater human problems. Canadian Catherine Cameron (b. 1927) juxtaposes the impersonal nature of modern cities with the wonders of space flight in successive stanzas of her hymn “God, who stretched the spangled heavens” (1967).

Donald Hughes (1911-1967) follows in this strand of hymn writing. The son of a British Methodist minister, Hughes received his higher education at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, graduating with First Class Honors in English. He taught at Leys School from 1935-1946, a Methodist foundation in Cambridge. Hughes was known for his athletic prowess, distinguishing himself as a cricket player. He was appointed as headmaster to Rydal School, another Methodist foundation institution. He died following injuries sustained in a car accident.

Hughes was a prolific writer, beginning as a young man as a contributor to The Assistant Master Speaks (1937) and Under Thirty Speaks for Christ (1939). Under his own authorship, he published several books, primarily in the field of education: Public Schools and the Future (1942), Some Educational Foundations (1945), Reason and Imagination (1949), and The Apostles’ Creed (1960).

“Creator of the Earth and Skies” was written in 1967. The first stanza addresses the Creator of the universe in the first two lines of stanza one. The remaining two lines are a petition to “grant us your truth” for wisdom, and “grant us your power” for strength.

Stanzas two begins, “We have not known you.” The poet then addresses space flight in negative terms: “to the skies our monuments of folly soar.” Stanza three begins, “We have not loved you.” The author speaks blatantly that our lack of love for God has devastating results: first, “far and wide the wreckage of our hatred spreads,” and second, “evils wrought by human pride/recoil on unrepentant heads.”

The final stanza poses a rhetorical question: “How shall we follow in your way?” The hymn ends with a petition framed with the antithesis of dark and light:

Speak to us all your words of life,
until our darkness turn to day.

 

The hymn originally had six stanzas. The missing stanzas two and five follow:

Like theirs of old, our life is death,
our light is darkness, till we see
the eternal Word made flesh and breath,
the God who walked by Galilee.


For this, our foolish confidence,
our pride of knowledge, and our sin
we come to you in penitence;
in us the work of grace begins.

The inclusion of these stanzas adds theological depth and poetic richness to the poem. The original stanza two foreshadows the antithesis of light and dark found in the final stanza. Furthermore, the incarnational reference to the “eternal Word” culminates in a parallel reference in the last stanza to “Speak to us all your words of life . . .”

The original fifth stanza continues the train of thought begun in the second stanza in the hymnal. The “monuments of folly [that] soar” cited earlier reflect the “foolish confidence, our pride of knowledge” in the missing stanza five.

Although Hughes was a little-known hymn writer, his hymn reflects not only prophetic passion, but also poetic skill. Eminent British hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982) offers his assessment of the hymn:

“Hughes has . . . produced a perfect lyric, serious but hopeful, not a word out of place, with a Wesley-like balance between the massive words and the small ones.”

In another publication, Routley offers an evaluation of Hughes’ broader output:

“He showed in [his hymns] a singular mastery of the hymn-writer’s art, combining the true classic poise with the ability to say ‘twentieth century’ things modestly and firmly.”

 

*The Methodist Publishing House, England. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns