Home History of Hymns: "Heralds" hymn honors spirit of world mission

History of Hymns: "Heralds" hymn honors spirit of world mission

“Heralds of Christ”
Laura S. Copenhaver
UM Hymnal, No. 567

Laura S. Copenhaver

Heralds of Christ, who bear the King’s commands,
immortal tidings in your mortal hands,
pass on and carry swift the news you bring;
make straight, make straight the highway of the King.

The Rev. Carlton R. Young, UM Hymnal editor, notes that this hymn grows out of the poet’s mission work in the Virginia mountains for 30 years, and other mission interests as far-reaching as Africa and India. He states that “Heralds of Christ” “expresses the determined, dynamic, energetic and expansive attributes of nineteenth-century Christian missions.”

Laura Scherer Copenhaver (1868-1940) was a Virginia native who grew up in the United Lutheran Church in America. She taught English literature at Marion (Va.) College, and wrote widely distributed articles supporting mission causes.

A current website from the Sherwood Anderson Festival (2008) provides more information on Laura Copenhaver’s activities: “Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver founded Rosemont Craft Industries . . . from her family’s mid-nineteenth century homestead ‘Rosemont’ in Marion, Virginia. Her father, the Reverend John Jacob Scherer, D.D., was the first President of Marion College and prior to the Depression, Laura, who was a very energetic and talented woman, had been teaching college English and writing.”

Copenhaver developed a mountain craft industry to provide economic support to mountain families during the Depression. As a young woman she became aware of the poor economic conditions of Virginia sheep farmers, so she devised a method to use the raw products of wool and incorporate them into handicrafts such as rugs, curtains and quilts that could be sold. Laura’s daughter, Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, continued the tradition and became president of Rosemont Craft Industries. Laura Copenhaver’s grandson, Tom Copenhaver, continues to run the craft industry in Marion today.

Methodist hymnologist and pastor, the Rev. Robert Guy McCutchan (1877-1958), cited the author’s own account of the hymn: “In writing ‘Heralds of Christ’ for one of the Summer Conferences at which I used to lecture, I was moved with a deep sense of unity with the builders of the King’s Highway in far lands, next door to me in America, and even more with those great ones I had known as a child now gone on with the immortals by way of Africa and India. . . . Today in every land Christians are uniting to build a Kingdom which shall have no geographical bounds, no limitation of race, no barriers of caste or class.”

This description of the origins of the hymn clarifies the references to the “King’s commands” and “the highway of the King.” The biblical basis for this highway is drawn directly from Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ . . .”

Stanza two declares that such a highway will not be easily built as it must be constructed “Through desert ways, dark fen, and deep morass, through jungles, sluggish seas, and mountain pass. . . .” However, in the spirit of 19th- and early 20th-century missions, those building this highway were undaunted.

The third stanza gives us an indication of the direction of this highway: It is heading towards “the promise of the day fulfilled, when war shall be no more, and strife shall cease. . . .” Indeed, this is “the highway of the Prince of Peace.”

An omitted stanza reveals some of the more ethnocentric, less flattering views of foreign missions from this era, especially with references to India (“funeral pyres”) and perhaps Asian religions (“censers swing”):

Where once the twisting trail in darkness wound,
let marching feet and joyous song resound;
where burn the funeral pyres, and censers swing,
make straight, make straight the highway of the King.

The hymn first appeared in Augustine Smith’s Hymns for the Living Age (1923), under the section “Foreign Missions,” set to the tune NATIONAL HYMN. This tune, with its fanfare interjections and stately tempo (also used with Daniel Roberts’ “God of the Ages,” No. 698), captures the fearless spirit of the age and its bold vision of the Kingdom of God on earth.

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

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