Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “For All the Saints”

History of Hymns: “For All the Saints”

John L. Bell“For All the Saints” by John L. Bell and Graham Maule

The Faith We Sing, 2283

For all the saints who've shown your love

in how they live and where they move,

for mindful women, caring men,

accept our gratitude again.*

The hymn “For All the Saints,” written by John Bell (b. 1949) and Graham Maule (b. 1958), is part of the ever-expanding, modern-day hymnody coming from Bell and the Iona Community in Scotland. Bell describes the assumptions of his hymn writing as “Scottish, incarnational, and biblical.” Scottish in “that [the worldview] is rooted very firmly in the culture we are a part of, …incarnational [in that] we mean that the text speaks of a Gospel that is wedded to time, place, and people, [and] biblical [in that]… while not all our materials directly quote scripture, it is the revelation of God through scripture and the breadth of human emotions offered to God in the psalms which guide our thinking (Hawn, 215).”

John Lamberton Bell was born in Kilmarnock, Scotland. He studied liberal arts and theology at the University of Glasgow from 1968-71, 1972-74, and 1977-78. While studying there, Bell was elected president of the Students’ Representative Council in 1974 and served as associate pastor for the English Reformed Church in the Netherlands from 1975-77. In 1977, he became the only student in the university’s history to be elected as rector to the university. After his ordination, Bell started to “[become more] aware of [a] ministry” called the Community that he had known of from his youth. Bell then became a member of the Iona Community in 1980 because “it was ‘a place where the potentials of the socially marginalized as well as the socially successful would be attested.’” Upon starting his time at the Iona Community, Bell began to organize volunteers and workshops to minister to the needs of many different groups, including ministering musically to others. Many who were attending these workshops, collectively called Last of the Month, “were often on the fringe of the church” and had little biblical knowledge (Hawn, 204-5).

Graham Maule was born in Glasgow, Scotland. Like Bell, he was educated at the University of Glasgow, but eventually became involved in the church as a youth worker. In 1983, he became a youth worker with the Iona Community and a resource worker with the Wild Goose Resource Group in 1986. He shares 250 credits as co-author of hymns with John Bell (Hull, “Graham Maule”).

In “For all the saints,” Bell and Maule employ the use of anaphora — or the repeating of a word at the beginning of successive lines — throughout the first three stanzas. In the same way, each stanza concludes using the phrase “accept our gratitude,” followed by either an acclamation or action. This repetition frames each stanza, acknowledging first the work of the saints and concluding with a prayer of thanksgiving.

This hymn can quickly be distinguished from another hymn that shares its name. The most familiar hymn by the title “For all the saints” was composed by Anglican Canon William Walsham How (1823-1897) in 1864. Although both hymns are dedicated to those who have died, they stand in contrast. Compare the first stanza of How’s hymn with that of the recent hymn composed well over 100 years later:

Hymn by W. W. How:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith
before the world confessed,

Thy name, O Jesus,
be forever blest. Alleluia!

Hymn by J. Bell and G. Maule:

For all the saints who've shown your love

in how they live and where they move,

for mindful women, caring men,

accept our gratitude again.

How draws upon images of warfare employed by the Church of England in the mid-nineteenth century. The Anglican Church on earth designates itself as “The Church Militant” and the Church in Heaven as “The Church Triumphant.” Thus we sing images in How’s hymn such as “Fortress,” “Captain,” “soldiers,” “fight,” “victor,” and “warfare.” It is only in the final stanza that the saints who have fought on earth achieve a “triumphant” entry into heaven — “gates of pearl”:

From earth’s wide bounds,
from ocean’s farthest coast,

Through gates of pearl
streams in the countless host,

Singing to Father, Son,
and Holy Ghost. Alleluia!

What becomes quickly apparent is that Bell and Maule eliminate the language of warfare and focus on the love and actions of the saints.

This is also reflected in the theology of Bell’s hymn, where those who may not be remembered by earthly standards, but have indeed affected our lives spiritually, are commemorated. To do this, Bell breaks the anaphora that he has used in the previous three stanzas in the fourth stanza. This is fairly common to find in Bell’s hymns, where the last stanza is always different from the others, shifting to a prayer of blessing:

Bless all whose will or name or love

Reflects the grace of heaven above.

Though unacclaimed by earthly powers,

Your life through theirs has hallowed ours.

This stands as a drastic contrast to How’s hymn, which is filled with metaphors of warfare that culminate at the “gates of pearl.”

“For All the Saints” acts as a modern cry of social holiness to address the concerns of voices within the church. While How’s saints are fighting a spiritual war, the saints of Bell and Maule give us a glimpse of a kingdom in the making, where the status of sainthood is achieved “through selfless protest, prayer, and praise.”

The simplicity and straightforwardness of these words, so wonderfully written by John Bell and Graham Maule, make this hymn deeply personal for individuals as well as for the wider body of believers.

* © 1996 WGWG The Iona Community, Scotland; Admin. GIA Publications, Inc. Chicago. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

For further reading:

C. Michael Hawn. Gather Into One: Praying and Singing Globally (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2003), Chapter 6,189-223.

Kenneth R. Hull. “Graham Maule.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed April 30, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk.proxy.libraries.smu.edu/g/graham-maule

Kenneth R. Hull. “John Lamberton Bell.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed April 22, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-lamberton-bell

“John L. Bell.” GIA Publications. Accessed March 20, 2017. https://www.giamusic.com/bios/john-bell

“For Whom the Bell Toils: An interview with John Bell of the Iona Community.” Reformed Worship. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-1993/whom-bell-toils-interview-john-bell-iona-community

“The University of Glasgow Story: Biography of John Bell.” University of Glasgow. Accessed March 20, 2017. http://www.universitystory.gla.ac.uk/biography/?id=WH1063&type=P

Braxton Kubasko is a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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