History of Hymns: "O Christ, the Healer"
“O Christ, the Healer”
Fred Pratt Green
UM Hymnal, No. 265
O Christ, the healer, we have come
to pray for health, to plead for friends.
How can we fail to be restored
when reached by love that never ends? *
United Methodist Bishop Joel Martinez once said, “Each generation must add its stanza to the great hymn of the church.” The subject of health and healing is one that has changed over the last century. Earlier hymns, more holistic in approach, were reticent to mention mental health. This stigma has diminished somewhat, if not totally dissipated.
Our hymn comes as a result of the deliberations on this topic among the members of the committee preparing the collection, British Methodist Hymns and Songs (1969). “Life and Health are in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord,” an earlier, well-known hymn in the United Kingdom by John Russell Darbyshire (1880-1948)—an Anglican bishop who was appointed Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa—had also reflected more recent thinking on the topic.
|Fred Pratt Green|
Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), a British Methodist minister and poet, produced a new hymn on the topic overnight. The Rev. Carlton R. Young, editor of the United Methodist Hymnal, notes, “This prayer for wholeness of body, mind, and spirit, a theme often occurring in Green’s texts, affirms the primacy of the worshipping community as the forum and agent for change.”
An Englishman educated at Didsbury College in Manchester, Green was ordained in the Methodist ministry in 1928, serving circuits throughout the country between 1927 and 1969. During his ministry he wrote plays and hymns, and published three collections of his poems. But it was not until his retirement that Green’s hymn writing blossomed, creating over 300 hymns.
Generally considered to be the leader of the “hymn explosion” that began in the 1960s, Green’s hymns appear more often than those of any other 20th-century hymn writer in English language hymnals published in North America since 1975. The UM Hymnal contains 15 original hymns and two translations by Green.
Stanza one asks the question, “How can we fail to be restored / when reached by love that never ends?” Restoration should not be confused with physical healing. For the Christian, restoration may not take place in this life.
Stanza two places the emphasis upon “wholeness” rather than “every ailment flesh endures.” According to a member of the committee, stanza three suggests a Freudian awareness of the unconscious: “Release in us those healing truths / unconscious pride resists or shelves.”
Stanza four places our individual ailments in the broader context of the “world’s disease . . . [of] our common life.” The stanza ends with the rhetorical question: “Is there no cure, O Christ, for [our ills]?”
The hymn concludes with a petition that we should all be “made one in faith.” True healing and wholeness happens ultimately communally—in the restoration of “the whole of humankind.”
It may be interesting to compare this hymn with one composed by Yale homiletics professor and hymn writer Thomas H. Troeger on a related topic. “Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit” (UM Hymnal, No. 264) is based on the account of Jesus casting out the unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28; Luke 4:31-37). This hymn, written in 1984, also explores mental health: “Lord, the demons still are thriving / in the gray cells of the mind. . . .”
The African American spiritual “There Is a Balm in Gilead” (UM Hymnal, No. 375) is commonly used during healing services. Upon closer examination, healing and sin are associated: “There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” While sin is a sickness in theological terms, associating mental and physical infirmity with sin in a service of healing could be harmful rather than restorative.
This topic is one that begs further theological and hymnological exploration. As Bishop Martinez indicates, part of the stanza of our generation is to explore the realities we face with the knowledge at our disposal. In the hands of skillful poets, we are able to sing a faith that encompasses the expanding truths of our era.