Home History of Hymns: "God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens"

History of Hymns: "God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens"

"God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens"
Catherine Cameron
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 150

Catherine Cameron

“God, who stretched the spangled heavens,
infinite in time and place,
flung the suns in burning radiance
through the silent fields of space,
we your children, in your likeness,
share inventive powers with you.
Great Creator, still creating,
show us what we yet may do.”*

Hymnody has often had difficulty keeping in step with scientific thinking. Singing “This is My Father’s World” (The UM Hymnal, No. 144) from the 20th century or “I Sing the Almighty Power of God” (No. 152) from the 17th century offers the comfort of an ordered universe in which everything is in its place and God is clearly in control.

Many of our hymns on themes of the natural world imply an extension of the cosmology of the ancient world in which a three-story universe provides the basis for our assumptions. In this view, the dome of the heavens with the firmament of the stars rests upon the earth, which, in turn, is supported by the underworld resting on the pillars of the earth. This view assumes that the earth is the center of the universe.

Nicolas Copernicus reoriented our understanding of the universe in the 16th century with his proof that the earth revolved around the sun. This should have changed the course of hymns, but parts of the church universal did not accept his teachings for centuries.

It took the space race of the 1960s to firmly establish that we no longer could restrict our understanding of the natural creation to the three-storied universe. “God, who Stretched the Spangled Heavens,” written in 1967, was among the first hymns to employ the imagery of the space age.

Catherine Arnott Cameron was born in 1927 in St. John, New Brunswick, the daughter of a New York minister, Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell. She holds a B.A. from McMaster University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Dr. Cameron was a professor of social psychology at the University of La Verne, Calif., from 1971-1992.

Hymnologist Harry Eskew interviewed Dr. Cameron, whose interest in poetry goes back to hymn singing in church at a young age.

“As a child and teenager with a gift for writing poetry, I was troubled by the mismatch between words and music in some of the hymns sung in our church,” she said. “I thought that one day I might write a hymn that was a harmony of poetry and music.”

Though the original tune chosen was AUSTRIAN HYMN, most hymnals pair this text with the lively American folk tune, HOLY MANNA.

The author notes “the hymn was written over a period of several months at a time when I was experiencing a new sense of direction, growth and creativity in my life.” It appeared first in Contemporary Worship 1 (1969) and has been a staple of hymnals ever since.

The most poignant aspect of Dr. Cameron’s hymn is the paradox between stanza one and stanzas two and three. In stanza one, the author celebrates humanities’ “inventive powers” that come as a result of being made “in [God’s] likeness.”

Stanza two contrasts the purposeful move into space with the void of life in “modern cities” where lonely people are often “lost to purpose and meaning, scarcely caring where they go.”

Stanza three, written at the height of the Cold War, contrasts “the ecstasy of winging through untraveled realms of space” with the earth-bound reality of the power of the atom, which provides us with the choice of “life’s destruction or our most triumphant hour.”

The final stanza appropriately concludes with the prayer: “Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one.”

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

* © 1967 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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