Home History of Hymns: "That Boy-Child of Mary"

History of Hymns: "That Boy-Child of Mary"

"That Boy-Child of Mary"
Tom Colvin
United Methodist Hymnal, No. 241

Tom Colvin

That boy-child of Mary was born in a stable,
a manger his cradle in Bethlehem.

What shall we call him, child of the manger?
What name is given in Bethlehem?

His name is Jesus, God ever with us,
God given for us in Bethlehem.
*

Thomas Stevenson Colvin (1925-2000) was a Scottish minister and missionary. Trained as an engineer, he left a position in this field to attend Trinity College, Glasgow, as a divinity student. Ordained by the Church of Scotland in 1954, Colvin was a pastor of a London inner-city parish for eight years and a missionary in Africa for 26 years -- serving mostly in northern Ghana and Malawi (then Nyasaland).

A member of Scotland's Iona Community for almost fifty years, he lived the rule of this Community in his service to others and sense of Christian justice. He died of a heart attack in Edinburgh on February 24, 2000.

In concert with his commitment to the rule of Iona Community members, Colvin's missionary ministry was characterized by justice issues such as Christian service committees, refugee resettlement, and community development projects. Among his many activities, Colvin participated in community development training in parts of southern Africa and aided refugees from Mozambique seeking sanctuary in neighboring Malawi. These areas of service were the focus of Colvin’s ministry rather than the development of indigenous congregational song.

The songs collected by Colvin have been spread by members of the Iona Community around the world. Several of his texts set to African melodies have found a home in Western hymnals. Colvin nurtured new African congregational songs by adapting local melodies and writing new texts appropriate for African Christians and, as it turns out, Christians around the world. He introduced his hymns first to the Iona Community and then beyond in two collections, Free to Serve (1969) and Leap My Soul (1976). These collections were brought together in a single volume, Fill Us with Your Love (1983). A last volume, Come, Let Us Walk This Road Together, was added in 1997.

Colvin served in Africa at a time of rising nationalism and African independence from colonial powers. In many cases, Colvin wrote Christian texts for existing African tunes. "That Boy-Child of Mary" uses a melody from Malawi. The text was written in 1967 for St. Michael’s Cathedral in Blantyre, Malawi.

Many African Christians find a connection between the naming of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22-38) and the meaning of names given to newborn children in Africa. African names often express the child’s place in the family, aspirations for the child, and, among Christians, may include a biblical name.

An African baby-naming ceremony is a festive family gathering, often eight days after the baby’s birth. Following a lavish meal, various family members submit names. The father announces the names and their meanings. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the baby’s name is revealed to all gathered, and the infant is passed around to everyone. Names in African communities have power.

This hymn is a baby-naming song for the infant Jesus. The stanzas alternate between a question and response. Like a baby-naming ceremony in many African cultures, the stanzas of this hymn tell the meaning of Jesus' name -- "God ever with us." A later stanza places Jesus in our family— -- "Gift of the Father to human mother makes him our brother." Finally, this newborn child carries the hopes for the whole world because he has come to save us.

* © 1969 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188.

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