History of Hymns: “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God”

by C. Michael Hawn

"I sing a song of the saints of God"
by Lesbia Scott;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 712

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor,
And one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green:
They were all of them saints of God – and I mean,
God helping, to be one too
.

Lesbia Lesley Scott (1898-1986) wrote pedagogical and inspirational hymns for her three children during the 1920s. Many were written in response to the children’s suggestions: “Mum, make a hymn for a picnic,” or “Mum, make a hymn for a foggy day.”  Though these domestic expressions of family faith were never intended for publication, at least one of them appears to have had a life all its own.

“I sing a song of the saints of God” was composed for All Saints’ Day. It stresses that saints not only lived in the distant past but also may live and work today as they carry out the everyday activities of their lives. Scott’s hymns were first published in England in Everyday Hymns for Little Children (1929) and in the United States in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940. Given the song’s humble and domestic origins, the author was “a little disconcerted by its popularity,” since this was neither her favorite hymn nor the favorite of her children. Evidently this was a concern held more broadly, according to British hymnologist Richard Watson, since the seemingly irreverent hymn “has disconcerted others too.”

Born in Willesden in 1898 and educated at Raven’s Croft School in Sussex, Lesbia Lesley Locket married John Mortimer Scott, a naval officer who served in two world wars, who later became an Anglican vicar (deacon, 1952; priest, 1953) and served a parish near Dartmoor. Lesbia Scott was active in amateur theater and wrote religious dramas. She died in 1986 at Pershore. Lesbia Scott also wrote religious one-act dramas or “pageant plays of the Church of England” including That Fell Arrest (1937), Then Will She Return (1948), and The Window (1951).

The hymn comes from the cultural context of rural England and captures some of these images. Stanza one notes that “one [saint] was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green.” Stanza three originally read:

You can meet them [saints] in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
In a church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea.
For the saints of God are just folks like me….

The United Methodist Hymnal contextualized the language written three quarters of a century ago in England for the North American hymn singer:

You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store,
In church, by the sea, in the house next door,
They are saints of God, whether rich or poor….

“I sing a song of the saints of God” is a particular favorite among Episcopal parishioners in the United States. David Hurlbert, a middle-aged Episcopalian notes, “The music we sing during our services is nicely sophisticated: some Anglican chant, some Bach, a bit of Purcell, and many hymns recently written in a spare, modern or postmodern style. I love the piety, the purity, and the craftsmanship of these hymns, but I’m disappointed that there isn’t much that’s just plain fun to sing. It’s true that we often sing hymns that inspire joy or hope – Christmas carols, for example – but they seldom inspire smiles or laughter.” The website, Anglicans Online lists this hymn as number fourteen (out of twenty) “Desert Island Hymns”! It seems that the text, like many hymns, is often the subject of parody, some examples of which are not appropriate to be cited here. One clever example follows. The original hymn states in stanza two:

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, 
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast . . .

The parody being:

And one was a soldier, and one was a beast,
And one was slain by a fierce wild priest . . .

John Henry Hopkins (1861-1945), a member of the Hymnal 1940 hymnal committee, composed the tune Grand Isle. It captures the child-like cadences of the text.  Composed in 1940, the words and music first appeared in The Layman’s Magazine of the Living Church, November 1940. Hopkins, an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church in the USA in 1891 and talented organist, named the tune after Grand Isle, Vermont, where he lived after his retirement in 1929. John Henry Hopkins is not to be confused with his grandfather, John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (1820-1891), an ecclesiologist and rector in New York, who was a hymnwriter of some note including his most famous hymn, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

United Methodist Hymnal editor, Carlton R. Young, noted, “for many United Methodists hearing or singing this hymn is little more than a delightful and irrelevant diversion.” In a recent United Methodist publication, however, Barbara Campbell mentions this hymn in a tribute to the organization of United Methodist Women who were saints who “not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still.” Citing stanza one of the hymn, she continues, “United Methodist Women (and all who went before) was born and thrived because countless saintly women ‘toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.’”

Recently Judith Gwyn Brown has illustrated this hymn as a children’s book. Once  hymnwriters release their hymns to the world, even ones written only for their children, they can never know the impact the hymns may have on individual lives or the breadth of places they may travel.

Categories: History of Hymns

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