History of Hymns: "Hope of the World"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Hope of the World"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 178
Hope of the world, thou Christ of great compassion,
Speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent,
Save us, thy people, from consuming passion,
Who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.*
Hymns are composed under many circumstances. Each year, congregations and organizations hold contests to write new hymn texts, usually to honor people, define the mission of a congregation, or to illuminate a specific theological topic. Some new hymns are written on the theme of an upcoming conference.
"Hope of the World" was written in 1953 for a hymn search conducted by The Hymn Society of America (now The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) for the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Evanston, Illinois, on the campus of Northwestern University, August 15-31, 1954. This contest attracted nearly 500 submissions, but this entry by Georgia Harkness won the contest on the assembly theme of "Jesus Christ – the Hope of the World."
Most commissioned hymns do not have a life beyond the occasion for which they were written. Not only did "Hope of the World" survive the conference, but it also appears in many hymnals today. Harkness wrote three collections of hymns and prayers, including several that won awards by The Hymn Society. "Hope of the World" first appeared in the Hymn Society's "President's Message" in the July 1954 issue of The Hymn, the journal of the society. This hymn was then included in a small collection entitled Eleven Ecumenical Hymns, written at the invitation of The Hymn Society of America in recognition of the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches.
"Hope of the World" is a very important hymn in the history of Methodism. Georgia Harkness (1891-1974) was one of the most celebrated American theologians of her day. Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University, Yale Divinity School, Union Theological Seminary, and Harvard Divinity School. She taught applied theology at several institutions, including Garrett School of Theology and Pacific School of Religion. She articulated several theological themes that defined United Methodists in the second half of the twentieth century, including ecumenism, the role of women in ministry, and social gospel.
The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, made this observation on the theme of the assembly and the choice of the hymn by Harkness: "Today it seems inconceivable that anyone would have questioned the assembly’s theme. But its challenge to the assumption that human endeavor was sufficient to bring in the kingdom caused a stir within USA liberal Protestantism that was only partly assuaged with the announcement that the winning hymn had been written by one of the USA's leading liberal theologians and ecumenists."
The first four stanzas describe a compassionate Christ who "speak[s] to fearful hearts by conflict rent" (stanza one), "bring[s] hungry souls the bread of life" (stanza two), "show[s] wondering souls the path of light" (stanza three), and "save[s] us from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt" (stanza four). The final stanza recognizes the "Christ o’er death victorious." The risen Christ "conquer[s] grief and pain" and will "forever reign." The first two lines of each stanza describe the ministry and life of Christ. The final two lines call for a response from us based on Christ’s example.
"Hope of the World" was written near the beginning of the Christian ecumenical movement following World War II. Ahead of her time, Harkness debated Karl Barth in 1948 at the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam on the topic of the equality of women. Among the first women ordained by Methodists, she challenged the church to include women in the pulpit. In an essay on "The Ministry as a Vocation for Women," she stated, "To those who fear that we women would not make a success of the ministry, we reply, 'Try us and see!' Is there anyone who really believes that a woman with proper training cannot preach as good a sermon as a man?"
"Hope of the World" communicates the essential theme of the social gospel: the compassionate Christ cares for human beings and walks beside them in all of life’s circumstances.