History of Hymns: “The Lone, Wild Bird”

by C Michael Hawn

"The Lone, Wild Bird"
by Henry Richard McFadyen;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2052

The lone, wild bird in lofty flight
is still with you, nor leaves your sight.
And I am yours! I rest in you,
Great Spirit, come, rest in me, too.

Little did I suspect when I began to investigate this modest hymn that I would find it so intriguing. I have been singing “The lone wild bird” for more than forty years as a quasi-folksong with guitar since I found it in a collection by David N. Johnson (1922-1987), an organist, composer, and teacher born in San Antonio and dying in Tempe, Arizona. His little volume of Twelve Folksongs and Spirituals (1968) seems to have served several purposes in the evolution of this text: First, he rescued this little jewel from relative hymnological oblivion; second, he paired it quite successfully with the haunting tune PROSPECT from the famous American tunebook, The Sacred Harp (1844); and lastly, he made a few alternations to the text including the substitution of “bird” for “fowl” in the incipit or opening line of the poem.

The author, Henry Richard McFadyen (1877-1964), was the son of the Rev. Archibald McFadyen and Miriam Eliza Cromartie, both from North Carolina. He married Myrtle Louise Angle in 1907, and they had several children. He followed in his father’s footsteps, attending the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Union Theological Seminary, Richmond. McFadyen was ordained in El Paso Presbytery (1906), serving churches in Texas and North Carolina, working for the Presbytery of Nashville, and retiring in 1947, where he lived in North Carolina until his death in 1964. This is the extent of the biographical information available on the poet, other than it appears that his name was often misspelled (McFayden) or appears in an alternate spelling (MacFadyen) from time to time.

The text was written for a hymn-writing contest sponsored by the Homiletic and Pastoral Review while McFadyen was serving the Nashville Presbytery. The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion (1993) cites the author on the composition: “The hymn was written on a quiet Sunday afternoon in the fall or winter of 1925 and sent to the Review. It was forgotten until I was surprised with an announcement that I had been awarded the third prize in the contest.” The hymn was published in 1927 and included in The [Presbyterian] Hymnal (1933) with the original first line, “The lone, wild fowl.”

McFadyen’s original two stanzas follow with Johnson’s alterations in brackets:

The lone, wild fowl [bird] in lofty flight
is still with thee, nor leaves thy sight.
And I am thine! I rest in thee,
Great Spirit, come and rest in me.

The ends of earth are in thy hand,
the sea's dark deep and no man's [far off] land.
And I am thine! I rest in thee,
Great Spirit, come, and rest in me.

I can’t help but wonder if the images in this hymn were derived from the congregations he served in southwest Texas (near the El Paso Presbytery where he received his ordination), where the sight of a lonely “fowl” was common. I can also imagine that parts of this region of Texas certainly had the desolate scenery of “no man’s land,” especially for someone who had moved from the tall green and lush flora of North Carolina. (I made the same move myself in 1992 and had some of the same feelings!) McFadyen’s original choice of words suggests a feral and somewhat inhospitable landscape, certainly what one might find in parts of West Texas. The author places this bleak environment in juxtaposition to the comfort offered by the “Great Spirit.” This word choice leads me to speculate that perhaps the Native American tribes that once populated the region, especially the Apaches, influenced the author’s choice for addressing the Deity.

David Johnson, while on a voyage by ship from Los Angeles to Bombay (now Mumbai), India in the early 1940s, was inspired by the vision of a solitary white bird in the vast expanse of the South Pacific. This experience seems to have influenced the pairing of this text with PROSPECT. Given the geographical setting of Johnson’s inspiration, changing the text from “fowl” to “bird” and “no man’s” to “far-off lands” makes sense. Seeing a fowl over a stark West Texas landscape is much different from spotting a lone bird in the middle of the rolling waves of the South Pacific.

The original two stanzas, though they are brief, are replete with rich biblical images. Psalm 139:7-10 comes to mind: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (ESV).*

The image of the “Great Spirit” is reminiscent of the Spirit of God (Ruach Elohim – according to some theologians not to be confused the Holy Spirit in Christian theology) hovering over the dark and deep chaotic waters at the time of creation (Genesis 1:2). Note the reference to “sea’s dark deep” in stanza two. If this were in the poet’s imagination, then it was truly a “no-man’s land” – a land for no human being.

Enter now the third voice in this conversation, composer Marty Haugen (b. 1950), who, in the spirit of McFadyen and Johnson, adds three stanzas that amplify the theology of the original text. He took Johnson’s adaptation of McFadyen’s text completely without changes for his arrangement (1991). He continues to explore Psalm 139, beginning with the new stanza three, “Each secret thought is known to you . . .”, drawing from the early verses of the psalm, especially verse 4: “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether” (ESV).*

The new stanza four beginning, “In secret depths you knit my frame. . .," echoes verse 13: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (ESV). The first two lines of the new stanza five, cited here, draw upon verse 23, “Search me, O God, and know my heart!” (ESV)*:

O, search me God, my heart reveal,
renew my life, my spirit heal;
for I am thine, I rest in thee;
Great Spirit, come and rest in me.

Marty Haugen’s use of the modern second person “you” in his newly composed stanzas, rather than maintaining the older intimate language of “thee,” created a jarring effect for later hymnal editors. Thus editors made modifications in Johnson’s adaptation of McFadyen’s original, the result being two “updates.”

If you are still with me, we indeed have spent some time on the powerful images and their adaptations. While these may seem inconsequential to some, words matter.

I leave you with these thoughts: First, hymns are often revised to fit the cultural context and location of those who sing them. Second, regardless of the form in which it appears, this hymn is a thoughtful and powerful witness to the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives.




*The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

** © 1991 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns