History of Hymns: “O Young and Fearless Prophet”

by C. Michael Hawn

"O Young and Fearless Prophet"
S. Ralph Harlow
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 444

S. Ralph Harlow

O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee,
thy life is still a summons to serve humanity;
to make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd,
to stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.

This hymn calls us to become more Christ-like, following the prophetic example of Christ’s life. The poet sets a tone of service and sacrifice in the opening stanza, seeing the ministry of Christ as a "summons to serve humanity." This summons is countercultural, meaning that our choices are unlikely to be popular. Furthermore, the summons to follow Christ’s example will take "humble courage."

What social context provided the basis for this bold statement? Samuel Ralph Harlow (1885-1972) was a Boston-born Congregational minister who responded to the social gospel that developed at the turn of the twentieth century in the northeastern United States under Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) in the previous generation. "O Young and Fearless Prophet" was composed in 1931 in the early years of the Great Depression. Harlow was a contemporary of Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), a leading progressive voice in New York City’s Riverside Church, and whose famous hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory" (1930), resounds with similar prophetic spirit.

Harlow’s education was thoroughly northeastern, including degrees from Harvard and Columbia Universities with a Ph.D. from Hartford Theological Seminary. His overseas experience as a chaplain and teacher at the International College in Smyrna, Turkey, earlier in his career gave him a broader vision of the world. He held the position of the religious director of the French YMCA during World War I as a part of the American Expeditionary Force.

Following the war, Harlow served as the general director of the Student Voluntary Movement in the Near East (1919-1922). Founded in 1886, the Student Voluntary Movement for Foreign Missions recruited college and university students from the United States for missionary service overseas. An arm of the Protestant Church, it was part of the expansion not only of Christianity, but also of Western cultural and economic values throughout the world. Though seen as culturally imperialistic now, those who participated were largely altruistic in motive and took advantage of the funds provided by wealthy Christian businessmen who made enormous profits during the heady economic days before the Great Depression.

The bulk of Harlow’s career was spent at the prestigious Smith College, the largest of the "Seven Sisters" women’s colleges, in Northampton, Massachusetts, serving as a professor of religion and social ethics from 1923 until his retirement.

The prophetic language of this hymn is in line with Harlow’s theology and activist social philosophy. In correspondence with the Rev. Carlton Young in 1963, Harlow indicated that his stance against prevailing political views could be costly to him:

"Years ago, back in 1924, I wrote an article attacking the isolationism, the economic imperialism, the oil scandals of the Republican Party. For this I was dropped by the American Board of Missions, who wrote, 'One whose attitude toward the Government in Power is what yours is is no longer acceptable to our constituency.' SHADES OF THE PILGRIMS!"

 

Not known for mincing words in his professional correspondence and writings, this quality can also be seen in this hymn. Stanza three asks for God’s help to "stand unswerving against war’s bloody way." Furthermore, he sounds an alarm against a "false love of country" and urges the singer to seek the "unity of all" that rises above love of nations.

Stanza four reflects the economic excess that led to the Great Depression. Harlow calls us to "protest against a greed for wealth, while others starve and hunger and plead for work and health." The message of this stanza rings as true in the twenty-first century as it rang then. The Rev. Young points out that members of the hymnal committees of 1935 and 1966 did not include this stanza because, as one member stated, "the church is not ready to sing that yet." The original lines of this stanza read like the newspapers in the Depression:

While men go crushed and hungry who cry for work and health;
Whose wives and little children are starved for lack of bread,
Who spend their years o’erweighted beneath a gloomy dread

 

An omitted stanza addresses racial equality long before the Civil Rights Movement of the second half of the twentieth century:

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind.
That knows not race or color as boundaries of mind;
That learns to value beauty, in heart, or brain, or soul,
And longs to bind God’s children into one perfect whole.

 

The final stanza petitions for the "presence" of the "young and fearless prophet" today: "Amid our pride and glory [we need] to see thy face appear." The belief in a society moving forward was a major part of theology of the Social Gospel. In that spirit, the author in the final line of the hymn asks the prophet to "lead us forward along God’s holy way."

 

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

Categories: History of Hymns

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