Home History of Hymns: "O Zion, Haste"

History of Hymns: "O Zion, Haste"

"O Zion, Haste"
Mary A. Thomson
The UM Hymnal, No. 573

Mary A. Thomson

O Zion, haste, thy mission high fulfilling,
To tell to all the world that God is light.
That he who made all nations is not willing
One soul should perish, lost in shades of night.
Publish glad tidings, tidings of peace;
Tidings of Jesus, redemption and release.

“O Zion, Haste” (1894) is one of the 19th century’s great mission hymns—songs that articulate the church’s responsibility to fulfill the great commission as found in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, [even] unto the end of the world.”

Some mission hymns have fallen out of favor because of imperialistic overtones, such as Reginald Heber’s “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” (1819). Others may still be sung, such as H. Ernest Nichol’s 1896 “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” (UM Hymnal, No. 596), but its music displays a triumphalism that is reminiscent of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” rendering it less effective in today’s environment where evangelistic “crusades” smack of neo-colonialism rather than cooperative partnerships in ministry.

Mary Ann Faulkner Thomson (also spelled “Thompson,” 1834-1923) was born in London and died in Philadelphia. She composed over 40 hymns. She described herself in the following no-nonsense manner: “I am an English woman and was born, baptized, and confirmed in London, and I am, and for many years have been, a member of the Church of the Annunciation, Philadelphia. I am the wife of John Thompson, the librarian of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and he is the Accounting Warden of the Church of the Annunciation.”

“O Zion, Haste” is the only hymn of Thomson’s that has survived.

The church is addressed as “Zion”—a reference originally applied to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 5:7: “Nevertheless David took the strong hold of Zion: the same is the city of David.” According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, this “metaphor [is] transferred to the [Christian] Church on earth.” Hebrews 12:22 states: “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels. . . .” The metaphor is completed in Revelation 21:2 in the “New Jerusalem.”

The subtleties of Thomson’s hymn come to light when compared to Nichol’s text. Rather than the march-like mandate found in the refrain of “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” Thomson’s refrain invites the church to “Publish glad tidings of peace . . . of Jesus, redemption and release.” There is much less of a sense that the church of the West has a message for the rest of the world. Rather than speaking in the first person plural—“We’ve a story”—the metaphor of “Zion” places the sending body as the church at large. Zion (Jerusalem) becomes home base for the mission of the church to the world.

Nichol’s hymn has a distinct them-versus-us feeling when addressing “the nations.” Thomson’s tone in stanza three is more inclusive: “Proclaim to every people, tone, and nation/that God, in whom they live and move, is love.”

The final stanza of “O Zion, Haste” is a direct appeal to the singer to send missionaries and resources supported by prayer: Give of thine own to bear the message glorious;/Give of thy wealth to speed them on their way;/Pour out thy soul for them in prayer victorious. . . .” The purpose of this sacrifice of persons, resources and prayer is an eschatological one—to bring in the New Jerusalem (Zion) and achieve a “brighter day,” culminating in the realm of God on Earth.

By comparing Nichol’s and Thomson’s hymns, the purpose is not to disparage one and elevate the other. They were written within two years of each other at the end of the 19th century. Both attempt to express the mandate of the Great Commission. A comparison raises an awareness of how we translate the Great Commission into 21st-century language where expressions of triumphal neo-colonialism may not be as effective as images of humility and partnership in the cause of Christ.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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