History of Hymns: “Halle, Halle, Halleluja”
By C. Michael Hawn
History of Hymns: Halle, Halle, Halleluja
Traditional Caribbean song with stanzas by George Mulrain;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2026-b
Halle, halle, halleluja!
I AM the Rock of Ages cleft for me;
I AM the let me hide myself in thee;
I AM the Rock of Ages cleft for me;
© 1995 General Board of Global Ministries. GBGMusik, 475 Riverside Dr., New York, NY 10115. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
*Stanzas found in Singer’s, Accompaniment, and Guitar Editions of The Faith We Sing.
What comes to mind when you think of the Caribbean? Perhaps you visualize sun and sea, palm trees and sand, brilliant colors, flamboyant dances. Perhaps you hear pulsating beats of reggae, calypso, and salsa, or imagine cultural celebrations of carnival.
The Caribbean region stretches more than 1,500 miles from north to south and nearly 2,000 miles from east to west. More than 30 million people, mostly of European and African descent, speak Spanish, French, Dutch, English, and a variety of creolized languages and dialects. They live in quiet rural villages, picturesque seaside towns, and busy bustling cities.
George MacDonald Mulrain (b. 1946) knows this region well. A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Dr. Mulrain is a minister and scholar who connects with his people through their music.
Dr. Mulrain has extensive experience not only in the Caribbean, but also beyond. In addition to serving congregations in Haiti (1973-1977), he has also been a Tutor of Kingsmead College, Selly Oak, Birmingham, UK (1977-1983) and a Lecturer in the Comparative Study of Religions at the United Theological College of the West Indies (1984-1989). Following service as the Principal of Kingsmead College (1989-1995), the Methodist Director of Mission Studies (1995-1997), and Senior Methodist Ministerial Tutor/Warden at United Theological College (1997-2003), he assumed the position of Connexional President of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas (2003-2012). He was also the theological advisor on the Editorial Advisory Board for the first general hymnal prepared by the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas, Voices in Praise (2013). He currently serves on the Executive Steering Committee of the World Methodist Council.
In addition to its colorful customs and joyful songs, the Caribbean is also a region of the world that faces the hardships of extreme poverty, natural disasters, and political turmoil. In spite of these circumstances, the music of the steel drum is a symbol of upbeat Caribbean life and worship. Mulrain notes that regardless of what life brings, Caribbean people understand that maintaining a positive outlook helps them to survive. “Jamaicans say, ‘No problem.’ Haitians say ‘Bondié bon’ (‘God is good’). These emphasize a fundamental philosophical belief among people of the Caribbean diaspora that God, the supreme being, will always be on their side.”
“Halle, Halle, Hallelujah” is one of the most popular Caribbean songs among North American churches. To this traditional joyful, syncopated refrain, Mulrain adds stanzas that both capture the spirit of this region, but incorporate significant biblical and theological insights.
The first stanza echoes the eighteenth century hymn by Augustus Toplady (1740-1778), “Rock of Ages, cleft for me.” The rock is an image of refreshment and protection in the Exodus narrative—the rock from which gushed forth water when struck by Moses (Exodus 17:1-6), and the cleft of the rock that shielded Moses from God’s glory as God passed by (Exodus 33:17-23). These are rich images for any people, but especially for those for whom survival is at times in doubt. The Corinthian epistles refer to Christ as the rock (1 Corinthians 10:1, 4).
Mulrain pulls from this and the “I AM” sayings as a way to bring focus and understanding to the joyful “Halleluja” refrain.
In the Companion to Songbooks Global Praise 1 and Global Praise 2 (GBGMusik, 2005), S T Kimbrough notes that, “When [George Mulrain] examined the text, he was not sure that the words “I am the rock of ages cleft for me” or “I am the let me hide myself in thee” made for ready comprehension. Therefore he decided not only to add verses to what was already in existence, but to reinterpret what was actually there."
Drawing upon the image of God, the great I AM, who chose to be revealed to Moses as recorded in Exodus, Mulrain incorporates the I AM sayings of Jesus as found in the Gospel of John. In subsequent stanzas, Mulrain includes four of the seven I AM sayings attributed to Jesus, “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), “I am the true vine” (John 15:1), “I am the resurrection” (John 11:25), and “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
George Mulrain has published scholarly works, including Theology in Folk Culture – The Theological Significance of Haitian Folk Religion (1984), a number of articles on Caribbean theology including “Is there a Calypso Exegesis?” in Voices from the Margin (1995), and a musical collection, Caribbean Praise (2000), with the Global Praise Project of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. He has composed about ten songs and collaborated with others to compose additional songs in an idiomatic language and musical styles that relate the biblical witness to the lives of the people of the Caribbean region.
Dr. Mulrain is currently the Superintendent Minister of a Circuit in Kingston, Jamaica, with five congregations, and he continues to teach courses on African religious influences in the Caribbean and Caribbean theology adjunctively at United Theological College. Though his office has many demands, his positive “No problem” spirit is reflected in the guitar that he carries with him constantly and his sung theology.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.