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History of Hymns: "The Voice of God Is Calling"

"The Voice of God Is Calling"
by John Haynes Holmes
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 436

John Haynes Holmes

The voice of God is calling
its summons in our day;
Isaiah heard in Zion,
and we now hear God say:
“Whom shall I send to succor
my people in their need?
Whom shall I send to loosen
the bonds of shame and greed?

John Haynes Holmes (1879-1964) was born in Philadelphia and educated at Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School. A Unitarian minister serving congregations in Massachusetts and New York City, Holmes was an articulate spokesperson on a variety of issues. Among his notable causes was a debate on prohibition, in which he took a supportive stance against Clarence Darrow.

A principled man, Holmes left the American Unitarian Association in 1918 over the Association’s policies toward World War I. His New York City congregation, Church of the Messiah, left the Unitarian Association with him and became a non-denominational congregation, The Community Church of New York.

A pacifist spanning two world wars, Holmes was not without his critics. None other than Theodor Geisel (also known as Dr. Seuss) mocked Holmes in a cartoon in PM, a New York newspaper, on January 13, 1942. The result was a considerable outcry from Holmes’ supporters to which Geisel provided a revealing response on January 21, 1942:

“In response to the letters defending John Haynes Holmes... sure, I believe in love, brotherhood and a cooing white pigeon on every man’s roof. I even think it's nice to have pacifists and strawberry festivals...in between wars. “But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: ‘Brothers!’ It is a rather flabby battle cry.

“If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.”

Holmes was a prolific writer in a variety of forms. In addition to composing hymn texts, he also wrote If This Be Treason, a play that ran a short while on Broadway. Selected book titles include: Palestine To-Day and To-Morrow: A Gentile’s Survey of Zionism (1929); A Sensible Man’s View of Religion (1932); My Affirmation of Immortality (1947).

Notable accomplishments include helping to found the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) in 1909, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920, serving as the chair of the latter. He was known for his work with Rabbi Stephen Wise of New York on social, religious, and political causes. A book by Carl Hermann Voss, Rabbi and Minister (1964), details their relationship.

Holmes was among those who publicized the work of Gandhi in the United States, including publishing the book My Gandhi (1953). He became a Gandhi Peace Award Laureate in 1961, the year after Eleanor Roosevelt received the same honor.

Based on Isaiah 6:8 – “Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.” (KJV) – this social gospel hymn was written while Holmes was returning from England, Scotland, and Wales on board a ship in September 1913. Upon his arrival in the United States, the hymn was sung at the 1913 convention of the Young People’s Religious Union and then first published in New Hymn and Tune Book (1914).

Holmes had many of the same concerns as did Methodist Minister Frank Mason North (1850-1935) whose hymn, “Where cross the crowded ways of life,” articulated the suffering of those living and working in the cities in 1903. Holmes’ stanza two speaks to the pain of those “crying in slum and mine and mill.” The entire second stanza is placed in quotation marks, the intent being that these words should be seen as Christ’s direct mandate. Thus the stanza concludes with Christ saying:

I see my people falling
in darkness and despair.
Whom shall I send to shatter
the fetters that they bear?

The third stanza amplifies the second part of Isaiah 6:8: “Then said I, ‘Here am I; send me.”:

We heed, O Lord, your summons,
and answer: Here are we!
Send us upon your errand,
let us your servants be.

The final stanza provides a series of petitions that clarify our call:

Save us (“from ease and plenty”)
Absolve us (“from pride of place”)
Purge us (“of low desire”)
Lift us (“to high resolve”)
Take us (“and make us holy”)
Teach us (“your will and way”)

The hymn ends boldly:

Speak, and behold! we answer;
command, and we obey!

Toward the end of his life, Holmes published his autobiography, I Speak for Myself (1959) and his Collected Hymns (1960). While appearing in more hymnals than any of his other hymns, twenty of the poet’s hymns have appeared in hymnals in the United States since early in the twentieth century. He is buried in the Community Church of New York where he served as minister. It is now a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

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