History of Hymns: “Faith of Our Fathers” honors English martyrs

by C. Michael Hawn

“Faith of Our Fathers”
Frederick W. Faber
UM Hymnal, No. 710

Frederick W. Faber

Faith of our fathers, living still,
in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword;
O how our hearts beat high with joy
when e’er we hear that glorious word!
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We will be true to thee to death.


Frederick Faber (1814-1863) grew up in a vicarage and seemed destined for priesthood in the Anglican Church. Following his education at Balliol College, Oxford, he became a Fellow at Oxford and in 1837 took Holy Orders as a priest in the Church of England. 

Faber’s appointment to a parish in Elton, Huntingdonshire, in 1843 seemed to seal his destiny as an Anglican priest. But in that same year, he seceded to the Roman Catholic Church, one of several 19th-century Englishmen to make this ecclesial shift. Moving to London in 1849, he established the Oratorians, also known as Priests of the Congregation of St. Philip of Neri, with John Henry Newman, a priest and hymn writer who also followed the path from Canterbury to Rome. 

Before seceding, Faber published a number of statements in defense of the Church of England. He also published a number of literary works during his Anglican years, including Cherwell Waterlily and Other Poems (1840), The Styrian Lake, and Other Poems (1842), Sir Lancelot: A Legend of the Middle Ages (1842, rev. 1857), and The Rosary and Other Poems (1845). His hymns, however, were published only after he  became a Roman Catholic. 

In the preface to his book Jesus and Mary: Catholic Hymns for Singing and Reading (1849), Faber describes the origins of his interest in hymn writing: “It was natural then that an English son of St. Philip should feel the want of a collection of English Catholic hymns fitted for singing. The few in the Garden of the Soul were all that were at hand, and of course they were not numerous enough to furnish the requisite variety. As translations, they do not express Saxon thought and feelings, and consequently the poor do not seem to take to them. The domestic wants of the Oratory, too, keep alive the feeling that something of the sort was needed: though at the same time the author’s ignorance of music appeared in some measure to disqualify him for the work of supplying the defect.” 

Indeed, in the same preface, Faber expresses appreciation for Protestant forerunners, including famous 18th-century publications like the Olney Hymns by William Cowper and John Newton as well as collections by the Wesleys which, because of their clarity and passion, served as models. 

As an Englishman, Faber also maintained a love for the Authorized King James Bible, of which he said, “It lives on in the ear like music that can never be forgotten, like the sound of church bells, which the convert hardly knows he can forget.” 

All of this paves the way for a better understanding of Faber’s most famous hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers,” which first appeared in Jesus and Mary. Among Faber’s interests were the lives of the saints. This is a hymn that acknowledges the legacy of Catholic martyrs in England who had died since the time of Henry VIII, who established the Church of England in the mid-16th century. 

In order to make the hymn more acceptable to a wider non-Catholic constituency, some alterations were necessary. The second stanza now reads:

Faith of our fathers, we will strive,
To win all nations unto thee. . . .


This is a significant adaptation from Faber’s original stanza, which would not be acceptable to Protestants:

Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to thee.


An 1853 alteration of the original by hymnal editors came closer, but does not meet the standards required today for inclusiveness—both in terms of gender and nationality:

Faith of our Fathers! Good men’s prayers
Shall win our country all to thee.


An anonymous final stanza brings together “both friend and foe” in love as we preach God’s love in “kindly words and virtuous life.”
The refrain was added later by James G. Walton (1821-1905) for use with the tune that is common in the United States, ST. CATHERINE.

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

Categories: History of Hymns

Download Now Add to Downloads Folder