Home History of Hymns: "O God of Every Nation"

History of Hymns: "O God of Every Nation"

"O God of Every Nation"
William W. Reid
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 435

O God of every nation,
Of every race and land,
Redeem you whole creation
With your almighty hand;
Where hate and fear divide us,
And bitter threats are hurled,
In love and mercy guide us,
And heal our strife-torn world. *

This hymn won first place in a contest co-sponsored by the Hymn Society of America (now the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada) and the National Council of Churches. It was first sung at the Council's Fifth World Order Conference held in Cleveland, Ohio, November 1958. The Hymn Society published it in Twelve New World Order Hymns (1958).

To appreciate the context of the poem, one must recall that the late 1950s followed two world wars and the Korean War. The Cold War, dated by some scholars between 1945-1991, was fully blown by 1958. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, while addressing a group of Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on November 18, 1956, declared, "We will bury you!" While the Premier denied this later, many in the West interpreted his statement as a nuclear threat that could lead to World War III.

According to hymnologist Mary Louise Van Dyke, longtime director of the Dictionary of North American Hymnology Project housed at Oberlin College (1984-2009), William Watkins Reid, Jr. (1923-2007), earned degrees from Oberlin College (1945, 1947) before graduating from Yale Divinity School and serving Congregational and United Methodist Churches in North Dakota and Pennsylvania. In addition to his work in local parishes, Reid was a Wilkes-Barre district superintendent in the former Wyoming Annual Conference (Pennsylvania) in 1978; and he held membership on various commissions and boards, including the Executive Committee of the Hymn Society in the United Sates and Canada. Many of his hymns are published in hymnals of several denominations.

How may a hymn address such a theme? The Rev. Reid offers an approach that combined personal experience, theological understanding, parish knowledge, and poetic skill. Reid served in the United States Army Medical Corps (1943-1945), earned three battle stars, and was imprisoned in Germany for eight months. He understood the nature of war. His theological education at Yale Divinity School, service in local congregations, and cultivation of the craft of hymn writing provide the background for this hymn.

The first stanza begins by addressing the "God of every nation, of every race and land." The poet realized that peace might only be wrought ultimately among nations and not solely through the efforts of any one country. The interdependence among nations, rather than the independence of countries, provides the potential for achieving peace. The first stanza continues to petition God to "redeem your whole creation" and "heal our strife-torn world."

The second stanza boldly identifies some of the causes of strife: the "search for wealth and power," the "scorn of truth and right." In what was undoubtedly an autobiographical note, the poet also laments the "trust in bombs that shower/destruction through the night." Another cause of strife is the "pride of race and station." As in the first stanza, Reid concludes with a broad petition, "deliver every nation, eternal God, we pray."

The third stanza is a plea for strength for "all who labor" that they "may find release . . . from rattling saber [and the] dread of war's increase", or, as we say today, escalating conflict. Again, God is directly addressed: "let your voice be heard" so that we might have "hope and courage" and a "faith that none can alter."

The final stanza pleads for a "bright . . . vision" of the cessation of "war . . ., hatred and division." Offering an antithesis to the metaphorical night that shadows a world of impending destruction, the poet looks toward the "dawn . . . [of the] morning" where Christ will reign in "truth and justice."

As we approach the celebration of our country's independence, perhaps it is appropriate to sing both our patriotic songs and a hymn such as this one that acknowledges the interdependence of our country among the other nations of the earth.

* © 1958, renewed 1986 by The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada; Administered by Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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