History of Hymns: "How Like a Gentle Spirit"
"How Like a Gentle Spirit"
C. Eric Lincoln
UM Hymnal, No. 115
How like a gentle spirit deep within
God reins our fervent passions day by day,
and gives us strength to challenge and to win
despite the perils of our chosen way.*
Charles Eric Lincoln (1924-2000) was one of the most important authors on race during the last half of the 20th century.
Born in Atlanta, he was abandoned by his father and then his mother, and was raised by his maternal grandmother. In spite of these family difficulties, Lincoln graduated from high school in Athens, Ga., as the valedictorian of his class. Early in his career he was a sales representative for Pepsi Cola, a manager for a Memphis nightclub and a road manager for the Birmingham Black Barons Negro League baseball team.
After study and work in Chicago, he moved to Memphis where he received his bachelor’s degree in 1947 from LeMoyne College, with majors in sociology and philosophy. In 1954 he received his masters in philosophy from Fisk University in Nashville, and then pursued a master of divinity degree from the University of Chicago, where he graduated in 1956. He was ordained as a Methodist minister the following year.
Lincoln received his Ph.D. in social ethics from Boston University in 1960. His teaching career included positions on more than a dozen faculties including Clark College in Atlanta, Brown University, Union Theological Seminary and the University of Ghana. From 1976 to 1993 he was professor of religion and culture at Duke University, retiring as the William Rand Kenan Professor of Religion Emeritus.
In 1956 Lincoln began studying the Black Muslim movement. The author or editor of more than 20 books, his best known are The Black Muslims in America (1961), The Black Church in the African American Experience (1990) with his former student Lawrence Mamiya, and an award-winning novel, The Avenue, Clayton City (1988). His final book was Coming Through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America (1996).
“How Like a Gentle Spirit” was written in 1987 in response to an invitation from the United Methodist Hymnal Revision Committee to 13 poets to compose hymn texts with a broad range of metaphors and images for God. Lincoln submitted three texts, and this hymn was selected by the committee.
When Lincoln learned that his hymn had been accepted, he responded in a letter to the Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal: “I am extremely gratified that [this hymn] found favor with the Committee. I wanted so much to make a contribution to the uniqueness and the universality of the Divine Being as it should be expressed in worship.”
The universality of God comes through in several places in the text. Stanza two says “all humankind is one by God’s decree.” In stanza four, the author entreats us to move beyond our “vain pretensions . . . to shape God’s image as we see our own” and rise “above our base desire.” We should not forget that “God is the sculptor, we the broken stone.”
The final stanza calls us to look beyond “our fretful claims of sex and race” and see “the universal love of God shin[ing] through.” The hymn concludes with one final expression of God’s universality: “God is love transcending style and place. . . .”
The Rev. James Forbes, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, called Lincoln a “Renaissance man.” Dr. Forbes noted, “He was a poet, a hymn writer, a novelist, a horticulturist, an expert on architecture and a gourmet cook. He was a publisher and the promoter of the publishing careers of young scholars.”
Pope John Paul II cited the author in 1990 for his “scholarly service to the Church.”