Home History of Hymns: "Many Gifts, One Spirit"

History of Hymns: "Many Gifts, One Spirit"

"Many Gifts, One Spirit"
Al Carmines
UM Hymnal, No. 114

Many gifts, one Spirit,
one love known in many ways.
In our difference is blessing,
from diversity we praise
one Giver, one Lord, one Word
known in many ways, hallowing our days.
For the Giver and the Gifts,
praise, praise, praise.*

It’s a rare hymn writer who can live both in the church and on Broadway. Alvin Allison (Al) Carmines Jr. (1936-2005), the author and composer of “Many Gifts, One Spirit,” was a leading figure in the expansion of the Off-Off-Broadway theater in the 1960s.

The hymn was commissioned for an Assembly of the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries in 1973. The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes that this hymn “is one of the first texts to express the unity, creativity and witness of the Spirit within our diversity of human gifts and conditions in completely inclusive language with respect to both people and deity.”

The hymn first appeared in Go to Galilee: Songs by Al Carmines (1974).

The first line of stanza one takes a different direction from many classic hymns: “God of change. . . .” How many hymns seem to view change as negative?

Take for, for example, Henry Francis Lyte’s “Abide with Me” (UM Hymnal, No. 700), where the author states in stanza two, “change and decay in all around I see.” Walter Chalmers Smith’s “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (No. 103) also paints a rather gloomy picture of earthly change in stanza three:

We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
and wither and perish, but naught changest thee.

Rather than decrying change, Carmines takes a more hopeful perspective: The “God of time and space” will “give to us [God’s] grace” in the midst of an unknown future. Stanza one concludes, “In the midst of changing ways, give us still the grace to praise.”

Variety in nature is to be celebrated and is a sign from God in stanza two. Difference is a “blessing.” Change may be feared by many, but change is inherent to the Christian experience. We need to change from a sense of exclusive provincial views to an inclusiveness that embraces. We need to change from hatred and bigotry to love and openness. “Many old ways” need to change, as the author states at the end of stanza two:

As the old ways disappear,
let your love cast out our fear.

The refrain focuses on “one Giver, one Lord, one Spirit, one Word” that unites us in our diversity. The oneness that we share in God “hallows” our days. In the Wesleyan sense of perfection, as we move toward the Holy One, God’s image is increasingly reflected in us. Carmines tells us that this image is rich in its diversity—infinitely varied and colorful.

Carmines’ life was as rich and diverse as his hymn. A native of Hampton, Va., he graduated from Swathmore College (1958) and Union Theological Seminary (1961, 1963) and was ordained into ministry in 1960.

Later in his career he served as pastor of Rauschenbusch Memorial United Church of Christ in New York City, a congregation that grew out of a Bible study group he led, and also as adjunct professor of musical theater at Columbia University.

For 20 years he was associate pastor at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village where he immersed the church in the arts, founding the Judson Poets’ Theater and administering the Judson Dance Theater and Judson Art Gallery.

Carmines suffered an aneurysm in 1977 that eventually led to his resignation from Judson in 1981. Surgery four years later halted the searing headaches, and he continued to work in spite of the limitations imposed by his ailment.

He was awarded the Obie five times for Off-Broadway Theater productions and received the Drama Desk Award, the New York State Award and the Vernon Rice Award (1968) for his collaboration with Gertrude Stein. His works include more than 80 musical plays, operas and oratorios.

In a 1973 New York Times article, critic Clive Barnes called Carmines “the composer of more musicals than almost any man now alive” and compared his compositional “ease and daring” to Stephen Sondheim’s.

* © 1973 by Al Carmines. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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

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