History of Hymns: “For the Beauty of the Earth”

by C. Michael Hawn

"For the Beauty of the Earth"
by Folliot S. Pierpoint,
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 92

 

C. Michael Hawn

 

For the beauty of the earth,
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

Folliot Sandford Pierpoint (1835-1917), a graduate of Queens’ College, Cambridge (BA, 1857), and a teacher of classics at Somersetshire College, has provided us with one of the most enduring hymns in Christian hymnals.

Pierpoint was the author of several poetry collections, including The Chalice of Nature and Other Poems (1855), Songs of Love, the Chalice of Nature, and Lyra Jesu (2nd Edition, 1858). The words of this hymn appeared in Lyrica Eucharistica, The Hymnal Noted (second edition, 1864).

As the title of the collection in which the hymn was published indicates, this hymn was originally written for the celebration of the Eucharist. The original poem was published in eight, four-line stanzas under the title, “The Sacrifice of Praise.” British hymnologist J. R. Watson suggests, “It is said to have been inspired by the view of Pierpoint’s native city of Bath on a spring day.” The original refrain, “Christ, our God, to thee we raise/This our sacrifice of praise,” reflects the theology of the Lord’s Supper as a sharing in Christ’s sacrifice. “For the beauty of the earth” appeared in the final “Miscellaneous Hymns” section of Lyra Eucharistica, echoing the post-Communion prayer in the Book of Common Prayer (1662): “. . . we thy humble servants desire thy fatherly goodness mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. . . .” Alterations made to the hymn and approved by the author made it useful for a broader range of liturgical occasions.

The original eight stanzas have been pared down to six for The United Methodist Hymnal. Each stanza paints a picture of gratitude embodied in some aspect of God’s creation: the earth (stanzas 1 and 2), the senses (stanza 3), “human love” (stanza 4), the church – in the original, “thy Bride” – (stanza 5), and the gift of God as manifest in Christ (stanza 6).

Omitted stanzas include themes characteristic of historical and theological views of hymns written by Church of England hymnwriters, the martyrs and prophets, and the Virgin Mary and the incarnation:

For thy Martyrs’ crown of light,
    For the Prophets’ eagle eye,
For thy bold Confessors’ might,
    For the lips of infancy:
Christ our God, to thee we raise
This our sacrifice of praise.


For thy Virgins’ robes of snow,
    For thy Maiden-mother mild,
For thyself, with hearts aglow,
    Jesu, Victim undefiled:
Offer we at Thine own Shrine
Thyself, sweet Sacrament Divine.

 

The later refrain, “Lord of all, to thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise,” broadens the focus of the original hymn from Christ’s sacrifice to one of gratitude for all creation and “Lord of all.”

Alterations to the original “Christ, our God. . . “ have been many, some of which are poetically and theologically weaker, for example, “Gracious God.” A long tradition exists that God died on the cross. The Fifth Ecumenical Council (553 C.E.) holds that “our Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified in the flesh, is true God, and the Lord of glory [I Cor. 2:8], and one of the Holy Trinity.” Thus Pierpoint follows a long tradition that equates Christ and God. As a eucharistic hymn in its original form, this theology is continued. The late Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate lamented the changes to the refrain: “Practically every recent hymnal has a different version of the refrain, apparently fearful of the treading on the corns of ‘liberal’ theologians and those who shilly-shally with an essential part of the Christian doctrine.” Pierpoint himself, according to Professor Watson, “defended his original text, noting that Pliny, in his letter to Trajan, had described Christians as singing hymns to Christ as God.”

The concrete images of this text make it ideal for children of all ages. The theological scope of this hymn differs from many others on this theme. For example, earlier hymns by Isaac Watts – “I sing the almighty power of God” (United Methodist Hymnal, 152) from 1715 – and Cecil Frances Alexander – “All things bright and beautiful” (United Methodist Hymnal, 147) from 1848 – focus on the natural created order. Both of these hymns were written to expound on the first article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth,” for children. Pierpoint, writing for the Eucharist, expands the discussion beyond the natural created order to humanity, the church, and, in the original, the martyrs, prophets, and the incarnation.

The final stanza addresses Christ himself as a gift:

For thyself, best Gift Divine,
    to the world so freely given,
for that great, great love of thine,
    peace on earth, and joy in heaven.

 

In the final line, Pierpoint joins hymn writers throughout the ages by echoing the cosmic connection between heaven and earth found in Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth . . . .” (KJV)

Conrad Kocher’s tune DIX (1838) is not the only tune to which this text is sung, but is undoubtedly the most popular in the United States. British Composer John Rutter (b. 1945) renewed interest in this text with his popular anthem setting composed in 1978.

 

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

Categories: History of Hymns