Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "O Church of God, United"

History of Hymns: "O Church of God, United"

By C. Michael Hawn

"O Church of God, United"
Frederick B. Morley
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 547

"O Church of God, united
to serve one common Lord,
proclaim to all one message,
with hearts in glad accord.
Christ ever goes before us;
we follow day by day
with strong and eager footsteps
along the upward way.

The unity of the Christian church has been a hope since its inception. "That all may be one" was the prayer of the church from the beginning. John 17:20-21 expresses this hope for a unified church: "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you" (NIV).**

"O Church of God, United" was composed for a hymn search conducted by The Hymn Society of America (now The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) for the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, meeting in Evanston, Illinois, on the campus of Northwestern University, August 15-31, 1954, on the theme, "Jesus Christ – the Hope of the World." This contest attracted nearly 500 submissions. Though the hymn did not win the competition, its merit was recognized, appearing in the July 1954 issue of The Hymn, the journal of the Society, and included in a small collection entitled Eleven Ecumenical Hymns; written at the invitation of The Hymn Society of America in recognition of the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Evanston. Illinois. August, 1954.

The author, Frederick B. Morley (1884-1969) was born in Canada and educated at Syracuse University and Boston University School of Theology. He was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1915 and served churches in New Jersey and New York.

Our hymn comes from a time of prosperity and optimism following the Second World War. Written in 1953, "O Church of God, United" draws upon the energy of a nascent church in Acts 2 and transplants the enthusiasm of the early church to the middle of post-war twentieth-century North America with all of its confidence in the future. No organization symbolized the hope for Christian unity in that day more than the World Council of Churches, established in 1948.

It is interesting to compare the diversity of the early church with the church in the mid-twentieth century: "Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!'" (NIV)**

The church of the first century was characterized by cultural and linguistic diversity. "O Church of God, United" alludes to this kind of diversity, but only obliquely – "every land and nation" in stanza one, and "Though . . . tongues may differ" in stanza three. The focus in the mid-twentieth century, however, was on the diversity of "confession[s]" (stanza two) and "creeds" (stanza three). Denominational identities were at their strongest during this era.

In addition, this hymn carried with it the mid-twentieth-century assurance that the church was moving forward. This hymn echoes the almost militant spirit of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century missionary hymns:

Christ ever goes before us;
we follow day by day
with strong and eager footsteps
along the upward way.
(Stanza one)

From every land and nation
the ordered ranks appear;
to serve one valiant leader
they come from far and near.
(Stanza two)

One also finds the remnants of the social gospel in stanza three:

Lord, may our faithful service
and singleness of aim
proclaim to all the power
of thy redeeming name.

The final stanza draws upon dark/light imagery prevalent in earlier mission hymns. The stanza prays for a "single witness" . . .

to make the pathway bright,
that souls which grope in darkness
may find the one true light.

While these observations do not render this hymn irrelevant, its message needs to be updated for a twenty-first-century church distinguished by a post-denominational perspective and diversity that echoes the cultural and ethnic complexity of the early church in Acts 2. Thus, "O Church of God, United" is a marker on the journey of the church that is semper reformanda – always reforming itself.

**© 1954, 1982 The Hymn Society, Administered by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

**THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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

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