Home History of Hymns: Hymn explores baptism, past, present and future

History of Hymns: Hymn explores baptism, past, present and future

“Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters”
Ruth Duck
The UM Hymnal, No. 605

Ruth Duck

Wash, O God, our sons and daughters
where your cleansing waters flow.
Number them among your people;
bless as Christ blessed long ago.
Weave them bright and sparkling;
compass them with love and light.
Fill, anoint them; send your Spirit,
holy dove and heart’s delight.

Ruth C. Duck (b. 1947), an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ (UCC), is known for not only her revolutionary views on worship and liturgy, but also for her beautifully prophetic hymn texts.

Dr. Duck, currently a professor of worship at United Methodist-affiliated Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., began writing hymns in the late 1970s and has since published several volumes of hymn collections, as well as worship resources and various books on liturgy.

Many of her hymns are thematically centered on issues of oppression and liberation, environmental and bodily wholeness, and the voice and experience of women. What is perhaps so phenomenal about her writing is that while these hymns make very prophetic and profound statements as to who God is and who we are to be, most of them have been formed with some liturgical context in mind (communion, baptism, gathering, prayers, etc.).

“Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters,” as the title suggests, was written with the sacrament of baptism in mind. In her hymn collection, Circles of Care, she provides two versions: “Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters” as well as “Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters”—which lends itself more to adult baptism.

BEACH SPRING is the most common tune paring with this text. The tune first appeared in The Sacred Harp (1844) and is attributed to B.F. White. The version in the UM Hymnal was harmonized by Ronald A. Nelson. The tune itself is pentatonic, meaning that it only uses five notes, which is fairly common for folk tunes from this time period. The folk-like elements of Dr. Duck’s text fit nicely with BEACH SPRING; images painted of baptism in the river and the putting on of white garments lend themselves to aspects of the rural American church, but also to images of Christ’s baptism.

There is a seamlessness of time. The tenses weave back and forth, looking at Christ’s baptism and baptismal practices in the early church, but also recognizing the present event and hoping for the future. Another wonderful feature of this text is that we as the company of believers are included. We are asking the questions, supporting the baptismal candidate, and proclaiming praise to God. Congregants are not merely onlookers, but take part in the process and remember Christ’s baptism, as well as their own.

The first stanza is a series of petitions, remembering what God has done in the past by recalling baptismal practices in the early church, and asking God to do these same things now and in the future. The second stanza further invites the congregation into action by not only asking that God’s grace be with the candidate, but also that God’s grace be with the whole body of believers. There is a beautiful, mothering image of God in this stanza, as we ask that God nourish us with milk. The final phrase of the second stanza reminds us of the sovereignty of God—that nothing, not even death itself, is outside of the realm of God, and that we as children of God are ultimately heirs of heaven. The third stanza is a series of acclamations of God as both glorious and mysterious.

The hymn places the focus of the baptismal rite on the divine work of God rather than on anything we can do of our own merit, a theological concept that perhaps should be explored and considered more in our day-to-day lives as believers and children in the faith.

* Words © 1989 The United Methodist Publishing House (Administered by The Copyright Company, Nashville, Tenn.) All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Ms. Hanna is a student in the master of sacred music program, Perkins School of Theology, and studies hymnology with Dr. Michael Hawn.

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