Article

History of Hymns: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"
Liturgy of St. James
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 626

St. James

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence” is one of the earliest Christian hymns still in common usage. Its roots date to the fourth century and is based on the Greek text “Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn” in the Liturgy of St. James. 

According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, the ancient Liturgy of St. James originated with the Church at Jerusalem and is sometimes called the Liturgy at Jerusalem. Originally it was thought to have been the work of James the Lesser, the brother of Jesus, but now seems to have been created under Cyril of Jerusalem c. 347 and was later amplified. 

Dr. Bailey explains the context of the original hymn: “In performance this liturgy leads up to the celebration of the Eucharist, our Communion. Since the Eucharist was an awesome rite in which, according to universal ancient belief, Christ was actually present under the guise of bread and wine, it should be approached only after due spiritual preparation.” 

The celebrant would say the following Preface during the Eucharistic liturgy, setting the context for the hymn: “We remember the sky, the earth and the sea, the sun and the moon, the stars and all creation both rational and irrational, the angels and archangels, powers, mights, dominations, principalities, thrones, the many-eyed Cherubim who say those words of David: ‘Praise the Lord with me.’ We remember the Seraphim, whom Isaias saw in spirit standing around the throne of God, who with two wings cover their faces, with two their feet and with two fly; who say: ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth.’ We also say these divine words of the Seraphim, so as to take part in the hymns of the heavenly host.” 

The hymn is thus imbued with the mystery of Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4 and invites the singer to participate in the mystery of the Incarnation, a sense of entering the Holy of Holies. 

During the Oxford Movement, a time in which some of the early texts of the Christian church were translated from Greek and Latin into English, Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885), an Anglican priest, provided a translation from the Greek in 1864 that appeared in the collection Lyra Eucharistica by Orby Shipley. 

English hymnologist J. R. Watson notes: “In the original Liturgy of St. James, [the hymn] was used as the bread and wine were brought into the sanctuary: it brings out the full drama of the occasion.” 

Stanza two concludes, “he will give to all the faithful/his own self for heavenly food,” lines reminiscent of John 6:35-58, beginning with, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (RSV) 

Stanza three clearly draws upon Revelation 4 with images of “Light of light descend[ing]” echoing the Nicene Creed. The final stanza conflates Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4:8 with visions of heavenly beings who sing eternally:

At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia Lord Most High!


Unlike the hymn, in Revelation 4:8 the creatures sing: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (RSV), which echoes Isaiah 6:3. 

The tune PICARDY comes from a book of French folksongs, Chansons Populaires des Provinces de France, published in 1860. The famous English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) paired it with this text for the English Hymnal (1906), and the text and tune have been inseparable since that time.
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns, Reflections/Articles