Home History of Hymns: Poet's brother composes hymn about Holy Spirit

History of Hymns: Poet's brother composes hymn about Holy Spirit

“Holy Spirit, Truth Divine”
Samuel Longfellow
UM Hymnal, No. 465

Samuel Longfellow

Holy Spirit, Truth divine,
dawn upon this soul of mine;
Word of God and inward light,
wake my spirit, clear my sight.

Samuel Longfellow (1819-1892) was the brother of the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He received his B.A. from Harvard University (1839) and his Bachelor of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School (1846). He served Unitarian congregations in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania.

Longfellow was also active in hymnological circles, editing with Harvard classmate Samuel Johnson A Book of Hymns for Public and Private Devotions (1846) and Hymns of the Spirit (1864). He also compiled Vespers (1859) and A Book of Hymns and Tunes (1860) as well as a biography of his more famous sibling.

“Holy Spirit, Truth Divine” was originally published in six stanzas in Hymns of the Spirit under the heading “Prayer for Inspiration.”
Several New England Unitarian pastors were also poets during this era including Edmund Sears (1810-1876), “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”; Henry Ware Jr. (1794-1843), “Happy the Home Where God Is There”; and the diplomat and statesman, James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Their works were often introduced into British hymnals before finding a place in 19th- and early 20th-century American hymnals.

Each stanza begins with a descriptive statement about the Holy Spirit and then, based on this statement, follows with a petition to the Spirit for discernment (stanza one), purification (stanza two), resolve (stanza three) and loyalty (stanza four). Two of the missing stanzas follow:

Holy Spirit, Peace divine!
Still this restless heart of mine;
Speak to calm this tossing sea,
Stayed in Thy tranquility.
Holy Spirit, Joy Divine!
Gladden Thou this heart of mine;
In the desert ways I sing
‘Spring, O Well! Forever spring.’

While this hymn is an excellent theological treatise on the work of the Holy Spirit and our response to the Spirit, it is also the perfect vehicle for Unitarian theology with no references to Jesus, but to the high ideals and aspirations of this theological perspective: “Truth,” “Love,” “Power,” “Peace,” “Joy” and “Right.” These are not just descriptive terms for the nature of the Holy Spirit, but are designated supplementary names for the Spirit, indicated by the upper-case initial letter of each word in the poem itself.

These ideals—Truth, Love, Power, Peace, Joy, Right—replaced a doctrine that stressed the divinity of Jesus Christ. In many forms of Unitarianism, Christ was a person who did not exist before he was born on earth and was empowered by the Holy Spirit to spread the message embodying these attributes. While the word “Unitarianism” does not appear before around 1673 in England, scholars can trace the origins of this group at least to the apostolic age in the fourth century.

Samuel Longfellow’s hymns were influenced by the transcendental philosophy that he encountered at Harvard Divinity School. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) introduced the term “transcendental” into philosophical discourse.

In transcendentalism, truth resides in an experience that goes beyond a physical and empirical understanding of objects and events, and is realized in the intuition of a person rather than the doctrines of organized religion. Longfellow’s hymn provides a list of those attributes that transcend the physical and, according to Unitarian perspective, lead to the eternal.

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

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