History of Hymns: "Let All Things Now Living"
By C. Michael Hawn
"Let All Things Now Living"
by Katherine K. Davis,
The Faith We Sing, No. 2008
"Let all things now living
a song of thanksgiving
to God the Creator triumphantly raise,
who fashioned and made us,
protected and stayed us,
who guides us and leads to the end of our days.
God’s banners fly o’er us;
God’s light goes before us,
a pillar of fire shining forth in the night,
till shadows have vanished
and darkness is banished,
as forward we travel from light into light.*
Sometimes a hymn begins as another musical genre. Such is the case with “Let all things now living.” Katherine Kennicott Davis (1892-1980) published this text as an anthem in 1939 under the pseudonym of John Cowley. She wrote the single stanza above earlier, perhaps in the 1920s, to fit the Welsh tune, THE ASH GROVE.
Katherine Davis was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. Following her high school education, she studied at Wellesley College (BA, 1914), where she won the Billings Prize for Composition, named after the New England composer, William Billings (1746-1800), usually regarded as the first choral music composer in America. Following further study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Ms. Davis returned to Wellesley College to teach piano and music theory. Like many American composers during the twentieth century, she studied in Paris for an interval with the famous composition teacher and conductor Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979). The list of Boulanger’s students included luminaries such as Elliott Carter, Aaron Copeland, Philip Glass, Daniel Pinkham, and Virgil Thomson.
During the 1920s, Katherine Davis taught at two schools, Concord Academy (1921-1923) and Shady Hill High School (1923-1930) in Philadelphia. She suffered a breakdown in her health and shifted her efforts to composing, resulting in more than 800 vocal and instrumental compositions, including shorter pieces, operas, and cantatas. As a music educator, she edited the “Concord Series” of music books for the E.C. Schirmer Company. Ms. Davis is best known for her popular Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy” (1941), originally known as “Carol of the Drum,” a song made famous by the Von Trapp Family and the recording by the Harry Simeone Chorale (1958). Simeone’s recording went to the top of the Billboard charts. The song was recorded by a number of vocal artists, perhaps most famously as a duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie in 1977.
“Let all things now living” is most popular during the Thanksgiving season. The text can be read in different ways. The final line of the first stanza – “as forward we travel from light into light” – might reflect confidence in the ultimate progression of human endeavors for the better under God’s providence, an extension of eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought, and nineteenth-century philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). This certainly would have been consonant with early twentieth century New England liberal philosophical thought. Mission hymns of the era employ a similar idea reflected as a Christian extension of Manifest Destiny. Drawing upon the Exodus narrative, the first stanza alludes to the “pillar of fire shining forth in the night” (Exodus 13:21-22). Appearing between world wars, such optimism might have seemed premature.
Another way to view this text would be from an eschatological perspective as seen in the phrase, “who guides us and leads to the end of our days.” The direction of the Christian life is ultimately consummated in heaven. The beauty of hymn texts is that they may be read in several ways.
The second stanza, much like hymns on creation for over 200 years, reflects on the natural created order, “stars,” “sun,” “hills and mountains, the rivers and fountains,” and “ocean.” All creation joins with humanity to raise a song of “glad adoration” to God.
Much of the popularity of this hymn comes with its paring with the buoyant Welsh folk tune, THE ASH GROVE. The roots of this melody may be found in the eighteenth century. Arrangements published in England in the early and mid-nineteenth century increased its popularity. The tune had been in limited use in evangelical hymnals in the United States with the text “The Master hath come” by Sarah Doudney (1841-1926). Davis’s use of the tune in her 1939 anthem brought the tune to broader denominational prominence in the United States.
Many of Ms. Davis’s anthems and arrangements have been a part of many music libraries in congregations across the United States. Three of her hymn tunes were included in The Methodist Hymnal (1966), though none were continued in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989).
Many of her works were for church use. Her own denominational journey included her upbringing as a Congregationalist, followed by affiliation with Christian Science, finally becoming an Episcopalian. Failing eyesight made it impossible for her to compose after 1977. Following her death in Littleton, Massachusetts, in 1980, her will provided that the royalties and fees from her many compositions go to the Wellesley College Music Department for the support of instrumental music instruction.