Home History of Hymns: "Deep in the Shadow of the Past"

History of Hymns: "Deep in the Shadow of the Past"

"Deep in the Shadow of the Past"
Brian Wren
The Faith We Sing, No. 2246

Brian Wren

Deep in the shadows of the past,
far out from settled lands,
some nomads traveled with their God
across the desert sands.
The dawning hope of humankind
by them was sensed and shown;
a promise calling them ahead,
a future yet unknown.*

The hymn texts of British-born Brian Wren (b.1936) are many and diverse. Dr. Wren’s hymn texts are now in many hymnals of several different denominations.

A “hymnic explosion” or “New English Renaissance” in hymn writing that began in England during the 1960s included Dr. Wren and several other hymn-writing ministers. These writers recognized a need for new hymns that encouraged greater participation on the part of the congregation in worship and spoke to the concerns of contemporary Christians.

Dr. Wren wrote the hymn, “Deep in the shadows of the past” in September 1973. He drew upon James Barr’s The Bible in the Modern World (1973), where the author states that “The Bible [is] the ‘classic model’ of and for the Christian faith.”

The hymn was first published in New Church Praise (1975), a hymnal supplement of the United Reformed Church in England and Wales. Dr. Wren writes, “Changes were made to this first text with a conscious effort to affirm inclusive language and to simplify and make stronger different expressions and words.”

Dr. Wren says the hymn “tells the story of the Bible in a manner acceptable to different beliefs about its inspiration.” In an address given in 1985 at a workshop at Chicago Theological Seminary, he said, “A good contemporary hymn, however, will delight the imagination, express our faith and our seeking, and be honest enough to express what people really know, ask, fear, and experience—not what we think we ought to feel and say.”

“Deep in the shadows of the past” delights our imagination.

In the first three stanzas, Dr. Wren brings to life the biblical narrative, describing the traveling nomads, perhaps during the Exodus. The second stanza illustrates an ancient people gathered in community around fires sharing stories and songs. The first line of stanza three immediately spans the breath and depth of a portion of the biblical narrative: from Exodus to Pentecost. The final stanza paints pictures of scribes copying and passing down sacred texts.

A hymn writer often writes a text in response to a need in the community’s canon of song. This particular text answers one such need. Hymn texts that directly illustrate the story of the Bible occupy very little space in current hymnals, if they are included at all.

In The Faith We Sing (2002) this is the only text listed under the subject heading, “The Book of the Church: Holy Scripture.” Other hymns on this theme such as “O Word of God Incarnate” (No. 598) and “Break thou the Bread of Life” (No. 599) are included in The UM Hymnal.

The hymn has been paired with several tunes. In New Church Praise (1974), the text is set to an Irish traditional melody arranged by David Evans (1874-1948). An alternative tune, KINGSFOLD is suggested at the bottom of this setting. The UM Hymnal supplement, The Faith We Sing (2000), pairs the text with the English folk tune KINSGFOLD, which conveys the storytelling narrative well.

*© 1975 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188; All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Ms. Stern is a student of Dr. Michael Hawn’s in the master of sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU. She is a member of the committee developing a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).