Home History of Hymns: "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind"

History of Hymns: "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind"

"Dear Lord and Father of Mankind"
John Greenleaf Whittier
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 358

John Greenleaf Whittier

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

This hymn’s origin is a paradox. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) worshipped in the tradition of the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. Traditionally, Quakers have not sung in worship, but value silence, waiting for the “still, small voice” of God.

According to accounts Whittier had been reading in Max Müller’s The Sacred Books of the East about the use of soma, a plant found in northwest India. Soma was used to prepare an intoxicating drug that was ingested in religious rituals, resulting in a state of frenzy.

This hymn began as a part of a long narrative poem, “The Brewing of Soma,” published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1872. The poem describes Vedic priests going into the forest, brewing a drink from honey and milk, and drinking themselves into a frenzy. Whittier was critical of those who believed they might find God through unbridled ecstasy, such as the hysterical camp meetings and revivals common in his day.

Whittier’s response was a 17-stanza poem, of which stanzas 12-17 have been excised to form the hymn as found in many hymnals. The preceding stanza sets the context for our hymn:

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfill;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

Stanza one then begins, “Dear Lord, and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways….”—a complete antithesis to the “transports wild” in the preceding verse. Rather than frenzy, true praise is expressed in “deeper reverence.”

Whittier then continues with biblical examples of simplicity and serenity. Stanza two alludes to the “simple trust” of the disciples who heard the “gracious calling” of Christ. Like them, we should rise “without a word” and follow the Master.

Stanza three has one of the most beautiful phrases in 19th-century Romantic poetry. The context is that of “Sabbath rest” by the sea with the “calm of hills above.” It was in this serene setting that Christ came to pray in “the silence of eternity, interpreted by love!”

The fourth stanza maintains the sense of tranquility: “Drop thy still dews of quietness,/till all our strivings cease.” In this stanza the poet employs the device of onomatopoeia by choosing words throughout with an “s” sound—“dews,” “quietness,” “strivings,” “cease” and so on. The skill of the poet is evident in a tour de force of sibilant sounds evoking serenity.

The final stanza evokes images of breathing and calm, closing with a magnificent antithesis: “Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,/ O still, small voice of calm.”

Whittier was one of the most important of the 19th-century American poets. The New Englander was a Quaker abolitionist, reared in a large farmhouse in the rural setting of Merrimac Valley at East Haverhill, Mass. The Whittier homestead remains a museum open to the public.

The Victorian tune REST by Frederick C. Maker (1844-1927) was actually composed for American poet W.B. Tappan’s hymn, “There is an hour of peaceful rest.” British hymnals have embraced Whittier’s hymn, but prefer the tune REPTON by the famous English composer C.H.H. Parry.

English hymnologist J.R. Watson summarizes well the contribution of this hymn: “It is the opposite end of the devotional spectrum from those hymns which encourage activity and energy; but everyone experiences the need for quiet meditation at some time, and this hymn encourages an almost mystical contemplation of the peace of God ‘which passes all understanding.’”

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

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