History of Hymns: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (UM Hymnal 184)

by C. Michael Hawn

"Of the Father’s Love Begotten"
Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, translated by John Mason Neale
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 184

“Of the Father’s love begotten,
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he
Of the things that are, that have been
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore.”


This is perhaps the oldest hymn that many congregations sing. Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348-c. 413) was a Spanish poet and successful lawyer who became a judge. He did not begin writing poetry until the age of 57. As one can imagine, a text this old comes to us in our hymnals today with much assistance down through the ages. 

Fred Gaely, a Methodist hymn scholar and seminary professor, confirms that Prudentius was “the first great poet of the Latin church.” The text was excised from a longer work, Hymnus omnis horae (a hymn for all hours), the first line of which was “Da puer plectrum,” in the Liber Cathemerinon (Book in Accordance with the Hours or Book of the Christian Day). The Book of Cathemerinon consisted of a collection of 12 hymns for the hours of the daily offices followed in the monasteries of the time. 

Hymnologist Albert Bailey, who calls Prudentius “the earliest Christian writer who was a real poet,” states that this is a “fighting hymn.” During the fourth century, C.E., what has become orthodox theology was fighting for its life against attacks by heretical perspectives. 

One of the most prominent heresies was propagated by Arius (c. 250-336), whose most controversial position—and the one relevant to our hymn—was that God the Father and the Son did not co-exist throughout eternity. This heresy states that before his incarnation, Jesus was created by God and therefore Jesus did not exist through all time. Jesus was a creature (“created being”) that, though divine, was not equal to the Father. 

Christian hymns have been used for polemical purposes throughout history, and this is perhaps the first great such hymn. In a beautiful poetic form, Prudentius applies his legal skills to make a case for what has become the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. 

From the first line of stanza one, “Of the Father’s love begotten” (“Corde natus ex parentis ante mundi exordium”—literally “Born from the parent’s heart before the beginning of worlds (time)”—Prudentius sets forth his argument that the Son has always, is always and will always be with God and us. 

To emphasize this, the poet adds one of the great tautologies (a repetition of an idea in different words for emphasis) in Christian hymnody, affirming three times the premise from the first line of the hymn:

“He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he.
Of the things that are, that have been,
and that future years shall see....”


The great 19th-century translator of classic Greek and Latin poetry, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), shaped Prudentius’ poetry into six stanzas, adding the refrain “Saeculorum seculis” (“Evermore and evermore”), indicating through its repetition at the conclusion of each stanza that the existence of God with the Son and the Spirit have been, are and will be co-eternal. 

The stanzas not included in The United Methodist Hymnal (two, three and five of the original) are the ones that give this poem a decidedly Advent/Christmas character. Stanza three of Mason’s translation follows:

“O that birth for ever blessed
When the Virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world’s redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore.”


To seal the argument that the legal-minded Prudentius set forth, the remaining stanzas in The UM Hymnal confirm that this is the true position of the church by stating that the “heights of heaven” and “angel-hosts” adore the Son and “powers, dominions bow before him.” Thus all of the cosmos from heaven to earth gives witness to the co-eternal and co-equal nature of the Son—a tough argument to speak against. The final stanza is a doxology that places Christ as a partner in the center of the Trinity. 

Our hymn was not sung to the famous tune DIVINUM MYSTERIUM originally. That melody comes from the 11th century and was used with a different text. The harmonization of the melody comes from The Hymnal 1940 in an arrangement by C. Winfred Douglas, who was the musical editor of that Episcopal hymnal. 

By the time this hymn comes to us in our hymnal, it has traveled an amazing journey through 17 centuries and at least four countries: a Latin poem from a Catholic Spanish poet in the fourth century, a tune from Italy in the 11th century, a translation from an Anglican in 19th-century England and a harmonization in the 20th century by an American Episcopal musician. 

Our hymn comes full circle with the Spanish translation by Argentinean Methodist Bishop Federico Pagura (b. 1923), “Fruto del amor divino” (Fruit of divine love), in the United Methodist Spanish-language hymnal, Mil Voces para Celebrar (1996). 

This is a hymn for all times and all ages that will be sung “evermore and evermore.”
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns, Reflections/Articles

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