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History of Hymns: “O Holy City, Seen of John”

by Nick LaRocca

"O Holy City, Seen of John"
Walter Russell Bowie
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 726

Walter Russell Bowie

O holy city, seen of John,
where Christ, the Lamb, doth reign,
within whose foursquare walls shall come
no night, nor need, nor pain,
and where the tears are wiped from eyes
that shall not weep again.

 

Walter Russell Bowie (1882-1969) was born in Richmond, Va. He prepared for college at the Hill School, graduated from Harvard in 1904 and went to Virginia Theological Seminary to prepare for the ministry. 

Following service as a hospital chaplain in France during World War I, and as an Episcopal priest for many years, Bowie accepted in 1939 a professorship in practical theology at Union Theological Seminary, a post he held until 1950. 

While in Virginia, he edited the Southern Churchman and served on his denomination’s Commission of Faith and Order committee, which in 1948 produced the Revised Standard Edition of the Bible. 

Bowie was admired for his abilities both as a preacher and as a writer. An accomplished author, he wrote several books, including The Bible Story for Boys and Girls: New and Old Testament, Christ Be With Me: Daily Meditations and Personal Prayers and Lift Up Your Hearts. 

A social prophet in the lineage of Walter Rauschenbusch, Bowie said in 1933 during the depths of the great American depression, “We live in a critical age when only those institutions will deserve to endure which are seeking to fulfill those better possibilities for human life, individual, social, national, and international, which the thought of the Kingdom of God requires.” 

According to the commentary in Guide to the Pilgrim Hymnal, the hymn itself “was written [in 1909] at the request of Henry Sloan Coffin [later, President of Union Theological Seminary], who wanted some new hymns that would express the convictions that our hope of the Kingdom of God is not alone some far-off eschatological possibility but in its beginnings, at least, may be prepared for here on our actual earth.” It was first published in Hymns of the Kingdom of God (1910), edited by Coffin and A.W. Vernon. 

The hymn entered The Methodist Hymnal in 1935 and today is considered to be one of the strongest American social-gospel hymns of this era, along with Frank Mason North’s 1903 hymn, “Where cross the crowded ways of life” (UM Hymnal, No. 427). It has also been included in several British hymnals. 

Just as heaven was the source of hope for the gospel hymn, the social-gospel hymn expresses an optimism concerning the perfection of humankind, with the city replacing heaven as the work place of God’s grace. The social-gospel hymn is theologically grounded in the writings and teachings of Raushcenbusch, who while not the first, was certainly the most articulate and convincing exponent of the social implications of the gospel as implemented by “Christian Social Action.” 

Hymns of social action are, according to Methodist hymnologist Fred Gealy, “concerned with the redemption of the social order—‘we’-hymns rather than ‘I’-hymns; hymns of the Christian community, and this-worldly, rather than other-worldly.” 

“O holy city, seen of John” draws upon Revelation 22:5, 21:27 and 22:1-5. It speaks to the pain and despair found here on Earth, and the hope and joy that will be found in the heavenly kingdom. 

The holy city of God is personified throughout the hymn with the ability to heal the sick and comfort the weary. Antithesis is employed in almost every stanza, contrasting the hurting that occurs in the world with the healing that occurs in heaven. 

The hymn minces no words, using language not usually associated with hymns of its day: “men whose lives are held more cheap than merchandise” (stanza two) and “content while lust and greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain” (stanza three). 

The fourth stanza petitions God to “Give us . . . the strength to build [a] city . . . whose laws are love . . . ” Such a city is, according to stanza five, “Already in the mind of God.”
 

Mr. LaRocca, a student in the master of sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology, studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

Categories: History of Hymns