Home History of Hymns: "The First One Ever"

History of Hymns: "The First One Ever"

"The First One Ever"
Linda Wilberger Egan
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 276

Linda Wilberger Egan

The first one ever, oh, ever to know
of the birth of Jesus was the maid Mary,
was Mary the maid of Galilee,
and blessed is she, is she who believes.*


Perspective changes everything. Only in the last 30 years have more hymn writers explored the events of Christ’s life from the perspective of women.

This witness has been present in the Bible, but has been neglected in congregational song until recently. Notable examples include Brian Wren’s “Woman in the Night” (UM Hymnal, No. 274) and the folk ballad, “The first one ever” by Linda Wilberger Egan.

Ms. Egan (b. 1946) received a bachelor’s degree in music education with a double major in voice and organ from Gettysburg College and is an alumna of the Union Theological Seminary School of Sacred Music. She was director of Trinity Church (Episcopal) in Swarthmore, Penn., from 1979-1984 and a musician for the Well Woman Project, a project of Venture in Mission, from 1980-1982.

She has served Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian congregations, and is currently minister of music at Pohick Episcopal Church in Lorton, Va., a position she assumed in January 2006.

Ms. Egan has provided a thorough account of the composition’s creation. “The ballad was written after the first year [1980] of a three-year study of the Gospels,” she writes. “That year I was reading to discover Jesus’s relationship with the women he encountered, and their function in his ministry. That year was also the first year of the Rev. Elaine Kebba’s ministry at Trinity Episcopal Church, Swarthmore, Penn.

“Because of their contact with her, many women here had begun to expand their views of their own ministries. This song is a simple explication of three of the texts I had been thinking about. . . . It is an attempt to remind people of what they already know about three famous events in Jesus’s life.”

Each stanza begins with “The first one ever, oh, ever to know.” Stanza one explores the Annunciation from the angel Gabriel to Mary as told in Luke 1:26-38, thus Mary is the first to know of the birth of Jesus.

Stanza two alludes to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well as told in John 4:7-26. This woman perceived that Jesus was the Messiah.

Ms. Egan notes: “Later in that year [1980] I became a musician for the Well Woman Project [of] the Diocese of Pa. Venture in Mission. Among its purposes is a search for liturgical expression consistent with the spiritual experience of women as well as men. . . . We take the woman at the well as a symbol because she listened to Jesus, she perceived that he was a prophet, she talked theology with him, and she preached about him so convincingly to the people of her city that they all came to see him.”

The third stanza reflects on the Resurrection morning when the three women, Mary, Joanna and Mary Magdalene, discovered that the tomb was empty (Luke 24:1-11). They were the first ones to experience the Resurrection and spread the Good News.

The musical medium for these narratives is a folk ballad form that became common in the 1960s and is reminiscent of songs by folksingers such as Joan Baez. It is an ideal style for conveying a narrative.

The composer has employed a medieval dance form, the estampie, to convey rhythmic energy. The modal character of the melody also adds to the folk song flavor.

The first half of each stanza sets up the scene of each narrative and may be best sung by a soloist. The second half of each stanza is an affirmation or berekah (Hebrew word for “blessing”) for those who follow the witness of the women in the narratives. This section may easily be joined in by all.

Before appearing in The UM Hymnal in 1989, the hymn was included in The [Episcopal] Hymnal 1982 (1985).

* © 1980, 1983 Linda Wilberger Egan. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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