Home History of Hymns: "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy"

History of Hymns: "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy"

"There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy"
Frederick Faber
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 121

Frederick Faber

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in God’s justice,
which is more than liberty.

Frederick Faber (1814-1863), born in Yorkshire, England, was one of a number of English clergy who converted from the Anglican Church to Roman Catholicism in the Romantic era of hymnody in the 19th century.

Faber was born an Anglican and reared a strict Calvinist. After attending Oxford, he took orders as an Anglican priest and began his ministry as a rector. Influenced by his friend John Henry Newman (1801-1890) who converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism in 1845, Faber also converted to Catholicism that same year.

Both Newman and Faber were influenced by the rituals and tradition of Rome. Faber formed a community in Birmingham called “Brothers of the Will of God.” Newman joined the Oratory, an order of secular priests established in 1564 by St. Philip Neri in Rome, and Faber eventually followed him there. Hymnologist Albert Bailey noted, “Father Faber was the moving and guiding spirit [of the Oratory] as long as he lived, a great preacher and a man of charming personality.”

Drawing inspiration from the hymns of John Newton, William Cowper and the Wesleys during his Anglican youth, he recognized that Roman Catholics lacked a tradition of more recent metrical hymnody in English. He took it upon himself to remedy this. By the time he died, he had contributed 150 hymns, all composed after his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” originally had eight stanzas and appeared under the title “Come to Jesus” in Faber’s Oratory Hymns (1854). In a later collection, the hymn expanded to 13 stanzas, beginning with “Souls of men, why will ye scatter/ Like a crowd of frightened sheep?” That version was included in a posthumous collection, Hymns Selected from F. W. Faber (1867).

Two omitted stanzas expand on the theme of God’s unfathomable mercy in a manner that, according to UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young, “demonstrates Faber’s affinity with eighteenth-century evangelical writers such as Charles Wesley”:

There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.

There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.

British hymnologist J. Richard Watson notes that, “Faber’s emotionalism, and his uninhibited use of . . . imagery, demonstrate his love of a sentiment that comes close to sentimentality.

“But his sentiment, however excessive it may seem, touches a tender spot: Faber is cheering on the soul, recognizing the troubles of life, and holding out the promise of a final homecoming.” The omitted stanzas perhaps move toward sentimentality, but also contain the eschatological note observed by Dr. Watson.

I find echoes of William Cowper in this hymn. Cowper (1731-1800), one of the hymn writers that influenced Faber during his Anglican youth, was an ardent Calvinist. His most famous hymn “God moves in a mysterious way” also has the sense that God’s sovereign power and understanding are far beyond human capabilities. Faber expresses this in stanza three: “For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind.”

Cowper concludes his hymn with a similar idea. After exploring the immeasurable and incomprehensible nature of God’s acts, he concludes: “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.”

The ultimate theme of this hymn is based on the premise and paradox that a sovereign God, unlike earthly rulers, demonstrates welcome, kindness, grace and mercy. All we need to do is have a simple faith that “rest[s] upon God’s word.”

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

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