Home History of Hymns: "God Created Heaven and Earth"

History of Hymns: "God Created Heaven and Earth"

"God Created Heaven and Earth"
Traditional Taiwanese, translated by Boris and Clare Anderson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 151

“God created heaven and earth,
all things perfect brought to birth;
God’s great power made dark and light,
earth revolving day and night.”*

Missionaries have often been criticized for importing Western culture along with the gospel. Asian ecumenist D.T. Niles (1908-1970), a Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) native, described the relationship between the gospel and culture:

“The gospel is like a seed and you have to sow it. When you sow the seed of the gospel in Palestine, a plant that can be called Palestinian Christianity grows. When you sow it in Rome, a plant of Roman Christianity grows. You sow the gospel in Great Britain and you get British Christianity. The seed of the gospel is later brought to America and a plant grows of American Christianity. Now when missionaries came to our lands they brought not only the seed of the gospel, but their own plant of Christianity, flower pot included! So, what we have to do is to break the flower pot, take out the seed of the gospel, sow it in our own cultural soil, and let our own version of Christianity grow.”

Presbyterian missionaries Boris (b. 1918) and Clare (b. 1923) Anderson were born in Yorkshire, England. They served in Taiwan at Tainan Theological College (TTC), a seminary for the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan.

Both were New Testament scholars and musicians—Clare playing the piano and Boris the flute. They were not culturally insensitive missionaries; through their work at TTC they promoted indigenous Taiwanese music and culture as well as Taiwan independence. They loved Formosa (the green isle), the former name of Taiwan.

This is their English paraphrase of a hymn, “Taiwan the Green,” by John Jyi-giokk Ti’n, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan:

“By Pacific’s western shore,
Beauteous isle, our green Taiwan.
Once suffered under alien rule,
Free at last to be its own.
Here’s the basis of our nation:
Four diverse groups in unity,
Come to offer all their varied skills,
For the good of all and a world at peace.”

The original Taiwanese text has been set to music, making this a hymn that has resonance with the independence movement in Taiwan.

The Andersons prepared their translation of this popular creation hymn in 1962 for the E.A.C.C. (East Asia Christian Conference) Hymnal (1963), a ground-breaking Asian hymnal edited by D.T. Niles. The translation was revised in 1981 for Hymns From the Four Winds (1983), edited by eminent Taiwanese ethnomusicologist and composer Loh I-to (b. 1936). The hymn was included in two editions of Sound the Bamboo (1990, 2000), an ecumenical Asian hymnal sponsored by the Christian Conference of Asia.

Based on Genesis 1:1-5, the first stanza recounts the creation of the earth and the separation of dark from light. Stanza two praises the Creator; the one who created the heaven and earth also gives to each creature a blessing.

Because Taiwan is a country of religious pluralism, stanza three clarifies that the God of creation is not to be confused with idols; these “handmade gods of wood and clay cannot help us when we pray.” The final stanza gives gratitude that God blesses all of “earth’s creatures small and great” and delivers us from “death and despair.”

Dr. I-to Loh has set this traditional Taiwanese melody—normally unaccompanied—with a harmonization that respects the musical style of this region.

The Andersons, who left Taiwan in 1963 and now reside in England, have been midwives between cultures for this hymn from Taiwanese Christians to the English-speaking world. For this we are grateful.

*Translation ©1983 Boris and Clare Anderson. Copyright administered by GIA Publications, Inc. www.giamusic.com. Used by permission.

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

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