History of Hymns: “Let There Be Peace on Earth”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Let There Be Peace on Earth"
Jill Jackson and Sy Miller
The UM Hymnal, No. 431

Jill Jackson

Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me;
let there be peace on earth,
the peace that was meant to be.

With God our creator,
family all are we.
Let us walk with each other
in perfect harmony.*


The folksong movement of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s produced many songs known for their ease of singing, straightforward texts and prophetic messages. Sy Miller (1908-1971) and his wife Jill Jackson-Miller (1913-1995) collaborated to produce a song that has become a signature composition devoted to world peace and harmony among peoples.

In an archival interview aired on David Freudberg’s National Public Radio program Humankind, Jill Jackson talked about her background and the context of the song.

“When I attempted suicide [in 1944] and I didn’t succeed,” she said, “I knew for the first time unconditional love—which God is. You are totally loved, totally accepted, just the way you are. In that moment I was not allowed to die, and something happened to me, which is very difficult to explain. I had an eternal moment of truth, in which I knew I was loved, and I knew I was here for a purpose.”

This realization was followed by years of exploring her spiritual nature and her relationship with God. Jackson discovered her love for writing, and began writing songs with Sy Miller after they married in 1949.

In 1955, she wrote the lyrics for “Let There Be Peace on Earth” while her husband wrote the melody. The song was introduced at a California retreat to a group of young people who were from a wide variety of religious, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The young people had come together for a weeklong experience devoted to developing friendship and understanding through education, discussion and working together. The song’s focus on peace and God made it easy to cross many boundaries.

Sy Miller wrote about the effect of the song: “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment—‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’—helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding.

< “When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, ‘Let There Be Peace on Earth’ began an amazing journey around the globe. It traveled first, of course, with the young campers back to their homes and schools, churches and clubs.”

Miller noted that the song was then shared in all 50 states at school graduations, PTA meetings, holiday gatherings, celebrations of Brotherhood Week, Veterans Day, Human Rights Day and United Nations Day. Kiwanis clubs sang it, as well as 4-H clubs, United Auto Workers, the American Legion, the B’nai B’rith and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).

The song was taped, copied, printed in songbooks and passed by word of mouth. Eventually it spread overseas, sung by Maoris in New Zealand and Zulus in Africa.

The song has been recorded by a host of vocal artists including Tennessee Ernie Ford, Pat Boone, Mahalia Jackson, Johnny Mathis and Placido Domingo.

It received the George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge for “Outstanding achievement in helping to bring about a better understanding of the American Way of Life.” The National Conference of Christians and Jews has also honored the composers with the Brotherhood Award.

In 2009 Random House published “Let There Be Peace on Earth” as a children’s book.
 

* © 1955 Jan-Lee Music, renewed 1983. Used by permission; all rights reserved.

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

Categories: History of Hymns

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