History of Hymns: “God Hath Spoken by the Prophets”

by Dr. Elise Jeeyoon Choi

God Hath Spoken by the Prophets
by George Wallace Briggs;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 108

God hath spoken by the prophets,
 spoken the unchanging Word;
each from age to age proclaiming,
   God the one, the righteous Lord!
’Mid the world’s despair and turmoil
   one firm anchor holdeth fast:
God eternal reigns forever,
   God the first, and God the last.*

*© 1953, ren. 1981 The Hymn Society
(admin. Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188).
Used by permission. All rights reserved.

“God Hath Spoken by the Prophets” by George Wallace Briggs (1875-1959) was published in 1953 by the Hymn Society of America (now the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada), who searched for new hymns to celebrate the printing of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. The New Testament translation was completed in 1946, and the Old Testament was added in 1952. This hymn was selected as one of ten hymns out of five hundred, appearing in Ten New Bible Hymns on the Bible (1953), and successively was included in forty-three  hymnals, the first of which was The Methodist Hymnal (1966) in the United States.

George Wallace Briggs was born in Nottingham, England, on December 15, 1875, and died in Hindhead, Surrey, England, on December 30, 1959. He was educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he took classes in classical studies; then he became a chaplain in the Royal Navy (1902-1909). He served English parishes as vicar at St. Andrew’s, Norwich (1909-18), rector of Loughborough (1918-27), canon of Leicester (1927-34), and canon of Worcester until his retirement in 1956.

Briggs, a prolific and renowned British hymn writer, was one of the founders of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His hymns appear in the Hymnal 1940 (Episcopal Church, U.S.A.) and several British hymnals. In 1950, he briefly visited the United States, lecturing at Berkeley, New Haven, and the Hymn Society of America in New York. As a religious educator, he contributed to two books, Prayers and Hymns for Use in Schools (1927) and The Daily Service (1936), which significantly influenced British worship practice. One of his prayers was used when Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met for the adoption of the Atlantic Charter on August 10, 1941. According to Methodist biblical scholar Emory S. Bucke, Mrs. Briggs remembers her husband: “All his life he was writing hymns...” (Young, 1993, 192).

Briggs’s poem unfolds the Trinitarian message in three stanzas: God has spoken by the prophets in stanza one (Old Testament), then through Jesus Christ in stanza two (New Testament), and then through the Holy Spirit in stanza three (New Testament). This Trinitarian form is strengthened by the use of a similar beginning for each stanza:

Stanza 1: God hath spoken by the prophets
Stanza 2: God hath spoken by Christ Jesus
Stanza 3: God yet speaketh by the Spirit

God’s eternity is emphasized in the final two lines of stanzas 1 and 3, and even the second stanza has a sense of God’s eternal nature: “God of God, ere time was born.” And this idea is reiterated throughout the poem using another rhetorical device, tautology, a poetic way of repeating an important idea in different ways for emphasis. Yet another example of this is the illusion to the Nicene Creed in stanza two: “Light of Light, to earth descending…”

When Briggs’s texts appeared in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), several textual changes were made to avoid gender-exclusive language. For example, in the first and third stanza, the original “His” is altered to “the,” avoiding referring to God as a male. Similarly, in the third stanza, the word “men” is changed to “our” to include both male and female: “the hearts of men” to “our hearts again.” Though changes were made for The United Methodist Hymnal in order to avoid the masculine language, changes to avoid earlier language forms such as “hath” and “speaketh” were retained. Later versions of the hymn since The United Methodist Hymnal’s publication have further revised the hymn.

For its initial publication in Ten New Bible Hymns on the Bible, Briggs set his text to the tune HYFRYDOL. Since then, the text has appeared with eleven tunes, among which EBENEZER, HYMN TO JOY, and BEECHER are the most popular ones to be used in various hymnals. In The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), it is set to the tune, EBENEZER, which was composed by Thomas John Williams (1869-1944).

Williams was born in Wales in 1869. Although he worked in insurance, he was a pupil of David Evans and served Zion Church (1903-13) and Calfaria Church in Llanelly as organist-choirmaster, from 1913 until his death. He died near Llanelly, Wales, in 1944. Williams adapted his well-known tune EBENEZER, written in 1896, in the second movement of an anthem called “Goleu yn y Glyn” (Light in the Valley) with an additional line under the title “including the popular tune EBENEZER.” However, it was W. Gwenlyn Evans, who heard the tune in Manchester, copied it down and copyrighted it – even though the composer was still alive. The tune became popular in Wales and then turned into a hymn tune. Although it is known that Llawlyfr Modiant (Handbook of Praise) is the first resource (published 1890) in which EBENEZER first appeared, a different tune was actually listed under the same tune name. EBENEZER is also called TON’ Y BOTEL (“tune in a bottle”), because of a tale that appeared in a newspaper article in 1902: it had been found on the coast of North Wales in a sealed bottle that washed ashore. It was Evans who gave this tune its name. The tune gained popularity during the Welsh religious revival (1904-05) and through its appearance in the English Hymnal (1906). The musical structure of the hymn is AABA with B beginning in the relative major.

Throughout the poem, the glory of the eternal and triune God is revealed, and the unique use of triplets in melody particularly enriches the nature of who God is.

For further reading:

Young, Carlton R. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Gealy, Fred, Austin Lovelace, and Carlton Young. Companion to the Hymnal: A Handbook to the United Methodist Book of Hymns. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.
 

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Dr. Elise Jeeyoon Choi, who received a D.M.A. in organ performance from Boston University, is a master of theological studies student at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, where she studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

 

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The United Methodist Hymnal

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