History of Hymns: “Rejoice in God’s Saints”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Rejoice in God’s Saints"
Fred Pratt Green
UM Hymnal, No. 708

Fred Pratt Green

Rejoice in God’s saints, today and all days;
a world without saints forgets how to praise.
Their faith in acquiring the habit of prayer,
their depths of adoring, Lord, help us to share.*

Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) gave us a fresh hymn for All Saints’ Day. Rather than elevating saints to a realm beyond the earthly, Pratt Green, in the words of UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton Young, “describes the importance of saints and how they interact with the world.”

In contrast to the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:2 that hover above us, Pratt Green brings these saints to our level: “A world without saints forgets how to praise.” Saints model for us the “habit of prayer” and a “depth of adoring” that we should “share.”

Stanza two explores the agency of saints, some of whom “march with events to turn them God’s way.” Others “need to withdraw” to cloisters, “the better to pray.”

The last half of the second stanza—Some carry the gospel through fire and through flood / our world is their parish; their purpose is God—is reminiscent of John Wesley’s famous declaration, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”

In stanza three, the poet recognizes that some saints are “unpraised and unknown.” They carry on their tasks unheralded and demonstrate “patience in caring” as well as “courage.”

The first two lines of the final stanza repeat those in the first stanza, reinforcing the basic theme of the hymn. The lives of the saints demonstrate to us that “the way of self-giving, Lord, leads us to you.”

Dr. Young notes that this hymn is a conflation of “two processional hymns that Pratt Green had written for the six-hundredth anniversary celebration of [Julian of Norwich’s] Revelations of Divine Love (1373), commissioned by the Dean of Norwich Cathedral.”

British hymnal editor and composer John Wilson advised Pratt Green to explore the lives and influence of the saints beyond the cloistered life led by many, showing how saints relate to common life.

If there is anyone worthy to be called a successor to hymn writer Charles Wesley, it may be Fred Pratt Green.

An Englishman educated at Didsbury College in Manchester, Pratt Green was ordained in the Methodist ministry in 1928, serving circuits throughout the country between 1927 and 1969. During his ministry he wrote plays and hymns and published three collections of his poems. But it was not until his retirement that Pratt Green’s hymn writing blossomed, creating over 300 hymns.

Generally considered to be the leader of the “hymnic explosion” that began in the 1960s, Pratt Green’s hymns appear more often than any other 20th-century hymn writer in English language hymnals published in North America since 1975. The UM Hymnal contains 15 original hymns and two translations by Pratt Green.

His approach to saints is in contrast to William Walsham How’s famous hymn, “For All the Saints” (UM Hymnal, No. 711), written more than 100 years earlier. How, echoing the conquests and colonization of the 19th century, drew heavily upon militaristic images of “faithful soldiers,” “victor’s crown,” “fierce strife” and “long warfare.”

Images of “triumph,” “brave hearts” and “strong arms” in How’s text are replaced here with calls to prayer, patience and self-giving. While both approaches are valid, Pratt Green offers an alternative to classical views of the saints that speaks to all of our experience.

* Words by Fred Pratt Green. © 1973 Hope Publishing Company; Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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

Categories: History of Hymns