Article

History of Hymns: “God of the Ages”

by C. Michael Hawn

"God of the Ages"
Daniel C. Roberts
The UM Hymnal, No. 698

Daniel C. Roberts

God of the ages whose almighty hand
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds in splendor through the skies,
Our grateful songs before thy throne arise.


“God of the Ages” (originally “God of Our Fathers”), its author’s one claim to literary fame, was written for a small rural parish in Brandon, Vt., for the nation’s centennial celebration in 1876. 

Daniel Crane Roberts (1841-1907) was a New Englander who served as a private in the 84th Ohio Volunteers during the Civil War. Following the war, Roberts was ordained a deacon and then a priest in the Episcopal Church. His parishes were in Vermont and Massachusetts, and Concord, N.H., where he served St. Paul’s Church for 29 years. 

He was also widely known throughout New Hampshire for his work as president of the New Hampshire Historical Society, as chaplain of the Grand Army of the Republic and as an active member in the Knights Templar. 

The 1892 edition of the hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church first included the text. Roberts’ hymn was originally written to the tune RUSSIAN HYMN (See The UM Hymnal, No. 653). 

George Warren (1828-1902), organist of the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York City, was commissioned in 1894 to write a new tune. NATIONAL HYMN was the result. Hymnologist Albert Bailey says of this tune: “It is this music with its melodramatic trumpet calls that helped bring the hymn to public attention.” 

The 1894 official hymnal of the Episcopal Church used the tune NATIONAL HYMN with this text and this has been the exclusive pairing ever since. The text with NATIONAL HYMN entered American Methodist hymnals in 1905. 

Stanza one—a sweeping one-sentence stanza—places the “God of Our Fathers” in a cosmic perspective “lead[ing] forth in beauty all the starry band of shining worlds.” The “starry band” (presumably our nation) in turn offers “grateful songs before [God’s] throne.” These “Fathers” (in the original) might be seen as Moses-like figures guiding the nation. 

In stanza two, the author bears witness that this nation has been divinely “led in the past.” God has led “this free land” and therefore “with thee our lot is cast.” God is our divine “ruler, guardian, guide, and stay” and God’s “Word is our law.” 

In stanza three we sing that God’s strong arm has protected us “From war’s alarms” and “deadly pestilence.” Earlier stanzas offer glimmers that our country has been chosen by God. 

Through war and pestilence, “God’s strong arm [is] our ever sure defense.” The author prayers that God’s “true religion in our hearts” will result in “bounteous goodness” and “peace.” 

In stanza four, like the children of Israel wandering through the desert, we are “people on their toilsome way.” The author offers a petition that we would be led “from night to neverending day.” All “glory, laud, and praise” is God’s. 

This hymn’s stirring lyrics and majestic tune represent, albeit subtly, the common 19th-century assumption of Manifest Destiny: God will lead us from the war and pestilence of our earlier captivity to the freedom and light of peace. 

In his Companion to The UM Hymnal Carlton Young notes several changes made in the original text as the Hymnal Revision Committee, following its own guidelines, “attempted to reduce where possible the predominance of masculine pronouns and images.” 

In 1901, Roberts modestly wrote, “I remain a country parson, known only within my own small world.” In reference to his one significant literary work, he noted, “My little hymn has thus had a very flattering official recognition. But that which would really gladden my heart, popular recognition, it has not received.” Before his death in 1907 he was awarded several honors including the Doctor of Divinity by Norwich University.
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns