History of Hymns: “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens”
“God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens,” by Catherine Cameron;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 150
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 power with you.
Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do.*
Catherine Arnott Cameron (b. 1927) was born in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. Born into a Presbyterian preacher’s family, Cameron became a U.S. citizen when her family immigrated to the United States in 1935 (Stulken, 1981, 488). She was educated at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario (BA in English, 1949) and at the University of Southern California (MA, 1970; PhD, 1971, in Social Psychology). She taught at the University of LaVerne in LaVerne, California (1971-1992), where her research was focused on issues of family dynamics and childhood trauma.
Cameron began writing poetry at seven years old and was published at age ten (Polman/Leask, Canterbury Dictionary). Harry Eskew, in Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal, quotes Cameron,
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. I thought that one day I might write a hymn that was a harmony of poetry and music (Adams, 1992, 310).
C. Michael Hawn quotes Cameron in his earlier “History of Hymns” article for Discipleship Ministries (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-god-who-stretched-the-spangled-heavens): “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.”
Cameron wrote the text in 1967 during the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States. It was published in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), in Ecumenical Praise (1977), and in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), where it was set to the tune HOLY MANNA. Hawn points out that hymnody has often included hymns such as “This is My Father’s World” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 144, 20th century) or “I Sing the Almighty Power of God” (UMH, 152, 17th century) that describe an ordered universe where God is in control. In this world, we see the three-story universe with the dome of the heavens filled with stars resting on the earth, which is supported by an underworld, making the earth the center of the universe. The reorientation of the universe in the sixteenth century by Copernicus to show the earth revolving around the sun took centuries to be accepted. It took our interest in space to draw our attention away from the three-storied universe visual (Hawn, History of Hymns). Carlton R. Young, in his Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal, writes, “God, who Stretched the Spangled Heavens” is one of the first hymns “to employ space age imagery, and it is one of the most imaginative, provocative texts of that genre” (Young, 1993, 374).
Raymond F. Glover commented in The Hymnal 1982 Companion:
This contemporary text probes deeply into concerns of the twentieth-century Christian about the scientific and technological advancements of our time. The hymn challenges us to question the full ramifications of our creative acts and to use our creative gifts to serve the good of others and to honor God (Glover, 1994, Volume #B, 1072-1073).
The first stanza lifts up God as Creator of the universe and us as God’s children, created in God’s likeness because we are creators, too.
The second stanza, unfortunately omitted in some hymnals, describes how often our buildings rise proudly toward the sky, leaving the city’s lonely to drift unnoticed, feeling lost. Perhaps this is a metaphor for our lack of seeing the needs around us.
The third stanza acknowledges how far we have come in our exploration of the power of the unknown and poses a dichotomy of destruction or triumph as we probe the possibilities.
The fourth stanza is a prayer that as we meet the challenges of our time using our creative powers that we may learn to serve others and honor our Creator. It is a prayer that we may learn to be guided by God, so we may be “co-creators,” working toward God’s good in our world.
This text will stand the test of time as humanity continues to struggle with its creative powers and the responsibility for caring for the whole of creation. The final line summarizes our need for God’s guidance to be the best stewards of our creative gifts.
Cameron is best known for this hymn text, “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens,” which was originally written for the tune AUSTRIA. It is also sung to ODE TO JOY and HENISEE, as well as HOLY MANNA. See YouTube for videos of the hymn sung chorally and played with handbells.
*© 1967 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For further reading:
Adams, Jere V.,ed. 1992 Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal. Nashville: Convention Press, 1991.
Glover, Ray. The Hymnal 1982 Companion–4-volume set. New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990.
"God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens." Hymnary.org, www.Hymnary.org.
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: God Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens,” Discipleship Ministries, https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-god-who-stretched-the-spangled-heavens.
Margaret Leask. "God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed June 4, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/g/god,-who-stretched-the-spangled-heavens.
Bert Polman/Margaret Leask. "Catherine Cameron." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed June 4, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/catherine-cameron.
Stulken, Marilyn Kay. Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.
Young, Carlton, “God, Who Stretched the Spangled Heavens." Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.
About this week’s writer:
Rev. Dr. Norma Lee Kerns Barnhart is an artist, theologian, preacher, teacher, and leader of retreat ministry who is retired from United Methodist Pastorate in Northern Illinois Conference after 24 years, and from Music Ministry at Chicago Temple First UMC after 13 years. Norma Lives in Chicago and Rockford, Illinois.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.