History of Hymns: “Let There Be Light”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Let There Be Light"
by Frances W. Davis
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 440

C. Michael Hawn

Let there be light,
let there be understanding,
let all the nations gather,
let them be face to face.

Two Canadians have given us a stirring hymn for peace. Frances Wheeler Davis (b. 1936) was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She was a graduate of the University of Manitoba and the University of Toronto, where she received her M.A. Her thesis was entitled "A Theory of Feminine Fiction" (1962). An Anglican teacher, she composed a number of poems and stories. "Let There Be Light" was composed in 1968.

Robert J. B. Fleming (1921-1976), the composer of the tune CONCORD, was a native of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He studied composition at the Royal College of Music in London, England (1937), with two prominent composers of this era, Arthur Benjamin (1893-1960) and Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Fleming continued his study at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. His career was varied, including music director for the National Film Board (1946-1958), a professor at Carlton University (1970-1976), and an organist/choirmaster for churches in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa.

Frances Davis recalled the context of the hymn in correspondence with this author: "I remember that I was very swept up in the peace movement at the time, and was very excited by Robert's very simple and powerful musical setting. We sang the hymn a lot at St. George’s, where Robert was the music director and I sang in his choir, long before the hymn was formally published. I remember writing other hymns with him, but none have been as successful."

"Let There Be Light" is a tightly constructed hymn text composed in an unusual hymnic meter, 47.76. Each of the six stanzas is a single sentence; each sentence begins with an imperative statement of four syllables. St. George’s Anglican Church, Quebec, first published this hymn in a collection of hymns.

The opening phrase of the first stanza takes its biblical cue directly from Genesis 1:3, "Let there be light: and there was light." The author, however, is seeking more than the light of the sun. She is also seeking the light of "understanding" among all peoples, an understanding that can come only when nations gather "face to face."

The second stanza begins with "Open our lips," taken directly from Psalm 51:15: "O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise." The writer would know this passage well as it is a versicle found in the Book of Common Prayer that may be said or sung responsorially with the priest. It has been a common liturgical formula in worship since the Reformation. With this history, Frances Davis expands it meaning beyond the opening of our lips to include the opening of our "minds to ponder" and the "door of concord . . . into grace."

The third stanza begins with "Perish the sword," an allusion to Matthew 26:52 when Jesus told one of his followers on the night of his betrayal to, "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." Once again, this biblical event receives a current application by the hymn writer:

Perish the bombs and hunger,
perish the fight for gain.

 

The fourth stanza begins with the imperative, "Hallow our love," an allusion to the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer found in Luke 11:2 and Matthew 6:9, "Hallowed by thy name." In this stanza the hymn writer remembers the "deaths of martyrs" and the "holy freedom" they have sought.

The next petition of the Lord’s Prayer begins stanza five, "Your kingdom come." This stanza is a plea for a fresh Pentecost where the Holy Spirit makes it possible for all to "speak together" in understanding.

The final stanza combines several of the imperatives into a series of petitions that build on each other:

Let there be light,
open our hearts to wonder,
perish the way of terror,
hallow the world God made.

 

Robert Fleming has written the tune for the unusual meter of this text. The melody opens with a dramatic downward plunge of a major sixth on the first four syllables of each stanza. Throughout the three remaining phrases of each stanza, the melody rises an octave and then finds equilibrium and resolution on a tone halfway between its lowest and highest pitches at the end. As the Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal notes, together this text and tune offer a biblically based "prayer for peace, freedom, and understanding among all people."

Mrs. Davis adds this comment: "The hymn still speaks to me and for me, and I often think of it when I occasional join a protest group or take part in a rally for equality and freedom of whatever kind. Of course at my age I don't march much any more, but the spirit is still there and I still sing in church choirs."

 

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

Categories: History of Hymns

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