Home History of Hymns: "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night"

History of Hymns: "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night"

John Bowring

John Bowring

“Watchman, Tell Us of the Night”
by John Bowring

Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.

Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory-beaming star!

Watchman, doth its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes, it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Isaiah 21 sets the broader context for this hymn. It concerns a special vision that God gave Isaiah about Babylon, a city on the Euphrates River south of modern Baghdad, Iraq. In this vision, the military and political leaders of Babylon are eating a banquet together when their celebration is interrupted by a word from the Lord to watch for someone who will bring news to Judah. Horsemen from one of Judah’s neighbors are preparing for battle. A watchman was needed to observe the battle. The gods of Babylon would not be able to save the city and it would fall. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground.” (Verse 9, NRSV)

But what of the people of Judah? In verse 10, the Lord says that the people of Judah have suffered greatly. The all-powerful God of Israel would save them. And then in verses 11-12, the specific verses upon which this hymn is based, there is hope offered by the oracle from Dumah, a small crossroads in the desert three hundred miles south of Jerusalem where merchants traveling between Babylon, Edom, and Syria could exchange information. A traveler from the region of Seir (near Edom) asks a question: “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, the morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.” (KJV) The implication is that the morning will bring a time of peace, but then in the night, war will again break out.

Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), a staunch Unitarian, provides a poetic interpretation of this text that elaborates on the dialogue between the traveler and the watchman. A distinguished scholar, Bowring was ranked by some as one of the great minds of his day in the English-speaking world. Among his gifts was his ability as a linguist, publishing translations of poetry from such varied languages as Russian, Batavian, Spanish, Polish, Serbian, Bohemian, Czech, and Hungarian. He was also a social progressive. According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, Bowring advocated free trade, parliamentary reform, education for all, and prison reform among others.

Few hymnwriters have been as conversant in national and international politics. Sir John (knighted in 1854) was heavily involved in developing commercial relationships on behalf of Great Britain and, in this capacity, traveled to France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany on the European continent, as well as Syria in the Middle East, and Siam (now Thailand) in south Asia.

In addition, Bowring was a Member of Parliament twice, a consul at Canton, in charge of trade in China, and a governor of Hong Kong — the connections with China being his most unsuccessful political endeavor. He was evidently relieved of his duties in Hong Kong because Bowring “was full of conceit and without any very clear idea of political principles on a large scale.” Bailey notes that some suggest that Bowring’s policies and poor relationships with the Chinese contributed, at least in part, to the second Opium War (1856-1858) — a situation that led to the Chinese putting a price on his head.

His difficulties in China notwithstanding, Bowring’s political skills must have been respected in some quarters. Even after retirement in 1860, his public service continued as a commissioner to Italy and other diplomatic posts in Europe and Hawaii. With the exception of John Newton, the former slave-trader-turned-Anglican-priest who penned “Amazing Grace,” we find few hymnwriters with such a colorful and international lifestyle.

Despite a demanding political and diplomatic career, Sir John maintained an active avocation as a translator of poetry, composer of original poems, and writer of essays on political and religious themes. Albert Bailey notes, however, that the “hymns that have lived were all written when he was about 30 years old, when his poetic interests were uppermost, and the idealism of youth made him the champion of the downtrodden and the underprivileged.”

Returning to our hymn, the poet was undoubtedly aware of the region of the world in which the hymn was situated. It was first published in Bowring’s Hymns (1825). The poem is distinctive for its perfect symmetry: In the first two lines of each stanza, the traveler asks the watchman what he sees. The final two lines of each stanza provide the watchman’s response. The poem is also an excellent example of how a hymn can gradually build to a climax. Each stanza adds intensity and hope. Stanza three states,

Watchman, tell us of the night;
higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
peace and truth its course portends.

It is in the fourth stanza, however, that the light of peace and truth bursts forth, covering the earth – the light of peace:

Watchman, will its beams alone
gild the spot that gave them birth?

Traveler, ages are its own;
see, it bursts o’er all the earth.

The final dialogue in stanza six reveals the Advent theme of the coming of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6):

Watchman, let thy wandering cease;
hie thee to thy quiet home!

Traveler, lo, the Prince of Peace,
Lo, the Son of God is come!

United Methodist Hymnal editor, Carlton R. Young, notes that this hymn was first sung in the United States in January 1830, at the Park Street Church in Boston. After Pastor Rufus Anderson concluded his sermon, the famous composer, music educator, church musician, and choral conductor, Lowell Mason (1792-1872), led “the choir in singing the composer’s setting for solo voices, choir, and congregation, and keyboard. It was published as sheet music, ‘Missionary or Christmas Tune’ in Watchman! Tell us of the night: a missionary or Christmas hymn . . . and included in the Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music, 9th Edition (Boston, 1830).”

Dr. Young notes that the hymn reflects “Bowring’s unfailing Unitarian postmillennial optimism that the Kingdom of God can be established on earth.” Certainly, Bowring’s breadth of experience as a traveler and understanding of many cultures, languages, and world events gave him a perspective that few in his day could match. Indeed, the hymn may be partly autobiographical—Bowring, the perpetual traveler searching the world for peace.

For the complete text of this hymn, modified to eliminate more archaic language, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/watchman_tell_us_of_the_night.