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History of Hymns: “This Is My Father’s World”

by C. Michael Hawn

"This Is My Father’s World"
Maltbie D. Babcock
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 144

Maltbie D. Babcock

This is my Father’s world,
and to my listening ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world:
I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.


What congregation had two successive ministers who wrote hymns that are contained in most North American hymnals? The answer: Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City. 

One of the leading Presbyterian ministers of his generation, Maltbie Davenport Babcock (1858-1901) penned a hymn with such concrete language that even children can understand its message at a basic level. He followed Dr. Henry Van Dyke, author of the hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” (The UM Hymnal, no. 89), as the minister of Brick Presbyterian Church. 

Babcock was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and was a graduate of Syracuse University. He continued his education at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. After serving two congregations at Lockport near Lake Ontario and Baltimore, he assumed the pastorate at Brick Church. He died just a few months short of his 42nd birthday in a hospital in Naples, Italy, following a trip to the Holy Land. 

Babcock was known both as a skilled amateur musician, playing the organ, piano and violin, and recognized as a university sportsman with achievements in swimming and baseball. He was an outdoorsman with broad shoulders and a muscular build. One of his poems gives insight into his approach to life:

We are not here to play, to dream, to drift,
We have hard work to do, and loads to lift,
Shun not the struggle; face it;
’Tis God’s gift.


Our hymn was published posthumously in Babcock’s Thoughts for Every-Day Living (1901) though it had probably been written much earlier. While a pastor in Lockport, N.Y., near Lake Ontario, hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck noted Babcock’s practice of “taking morning walks to the top of a hill north of town where he had a full view of Lake Ontario and the surrounding country.” It was said that he had a frequent expression before leaving for these walks, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world.” 

The original poem was composed in 16 four-line stanzas, each beginning with “This is my Father’s world.” One of Babcock’s friends, Franklin Shepherd (1852-1930) adapted an English folk song inserting portions of Babcock’s text into three, eight-line stanzas. The hymn in this form first appeared in the composer’s hymnal Alleluia, a Presbyterian Sunday school book published in 1915. The tune name, TERRA BEATA, means “blessed earth” in Latin. 

The first two stanzas are unusually concrete in their references to nature—“rocks and trees, of skies and seas”; “birds..., the morning light, the lily white... rustling grass.” For Babcock, nature was not only a visual spectacle, but an aural experience. Perhaps the author’s skill as a musician contributed to the many auditory images: “listening ears” and “nature sings” and “birds their carols raise” and “rustling grass.” 

The “music of the spheres” mentioned in the first stanza is a concept borrowed from Greek philosophy. This is the idea that the most perfect sounds cannot be heard by human ears. They take place in the orderly movements of planets and stars. The actual sounds that we hear on earth are but a weak imitation. 

The author shifts his focus in the final stanza from describing the visual and aural beauty of nature to the reality that all is not right with the world. With a strong sense of Presbyterian providence, Babcock observes “that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” The closing couplet, posing and answering a question, offers hope: “Why should my heart be sad?... God reigns, let the earth be glad.”
 

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

Categories: History of Hymns