History of Hymns: “We Are God's People”
"We Are God's People,"
by Bryan Jeffery Leech;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2220
We are God's people, the chosen of the Lord,
Born of the Spirit, established by the Word;
Our cornerstone is Christ alone, and strong in Christ we stand;
O let us live transparently and walk heart to heart and hand in hand.*
The theology of the church is often expressed in its congregational singing. Congregational singing is part of the church's DNA. The church presents God's message of love, reconciliation, and mission to the local and global community, partly through its congregational song. The text for “We Are God's People,” published in The Faith We Sing and Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship (as well as in numerous other denominational hymnals) is inspired by biblical texts that best identify the church's DNA as "God's people," "God's loved ones," "the body," and "the temple."
The opening stanza is built on the imagery in 1 Peter 2:9, that the community of faith is built on the foundation of Christ ("our cornerstone is Christ alone"), and that God's call and election are declared to a race, a people, a collegium of priests (Bartlett and Taylor, 2010, 462). Our journey of faith cannot be realized apart from a relationship with God and through God's active presence in the world. The second stanza continues to build on the 1 Peter imagery. Boston College theologian Pheme Perkins writes that through God's mercy and election, God's gift is open to all (Perkins, 2012, 44). Thus the church is obligated to be God's people ("now let us learn … the gift of love once given").
Stanza three highlights the church's character of being "the body." Theologian Miguel A. De La Torre writes that the fundamental message of Ephesians 1:22-23 is that of paradox, that the tragedy of the cross, its symbol of failure and shame, is transformed to glory and power through the church's solidarity with Christ (Bartlett and Taylor, 2010, 512).
The final stanza affirms the primary message of 1 Corinthians 3:16, that the church is more than community and serves as God's temple in human form, the place where God's Spirit dwells (Hays, 2011, 56). Paul refers to the church as people of the Spirit. ("We are a temple, the Spirit's dwelling place.")
The text for “We Are God's People” was written by Bryan Jeffery Leech (1931-2015) and was first published in Hymns for the Family of God (Paragon, 1976). It has appeared in several hymnal collections, including The Baptist Hymnal (1991), Hymns for a Pilgrim People (2007), The Covenant Hymnal (1996), and The Faith We Sing (2001). The tune SYMPHONY is an arrangement of the opening theme from the fourth movement of Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor. (Forbes, 1992, 262). It is worth noting that Brahms began writing this work in 1855, but the first movement was not completed until 1862. For unknown reasons, Brahms did not return to the work until the summer of 1874. While the work was completed in September 1876, Brahms continued to make minor revisions until its premiere performance in Karlsruhe, Germany, on November 4, 1876. Leech recommended the adaptation of the Brahms’ theme as the hymn tune because of its musical strength and the singability of the melody. Composer Fred Bock did the actual arrangement of the tune. The use of classical melodies as hymn tunes was common in the nineteenth century. The present arrangement is one of the relatively few examples of such adaptations in the late twentieth century. The Baptist Hymnal (1991) was the first publication of both text and tune in a Southern Baptist collection. (Forbis, 1992, 263).
Bryan Jeffery Leech was born in Middlesex, England, on May 14, 1931, and spent more than half of his life in the United States, coming to the States in 1955 after serving in the Royal Army and studying at London Bible College. He continued his education at Barrington College and later North Park Seminary. He was ordained to the ministry in 1961 and served Covenant congregations in Boston, Montclair, New Jersey, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Oakland. In addition to his pastoral duties, Leech was a member of the commission that prepared The Covenant Hymnal (1973) and was assistant editor for Hymns for the Family of God (1976). Leech did not begin writing hymns until his mid-thirties, and he went on to compose more than five hundred hymns, songs, anthems, and cantatas, with perhaps his most well-known and most sung hymn being "Come, Share the Lord."
Leech shares the background story behind the writing of "We Are God's People":
"We had at that time very few popular hymns relating to the church. So on a gray, smoggy morning at a friend's office in Southern California, I decided to work toward remedying this lack by writing one of my own. The day was the 4th of July, 1975. I sat at a typewriter in his office and I did not get up until I had written all four verses. The result was 'We Are God's People'. It turned out to be the favorite of all my hymn texts. I loved singing it and I like especially the mixture of the metaphors in it, some biblical and some my own, which illustrate the true nature of the church. 'We are a temple, the Spirit's dwelling place, formed in great weakness, a cup to hold God's grace; we die alone, for on its own each ember loses fire: yet joined in one flame burns on to give warmth and light, and to inspire.'" (http://covenantcompanion.com/2015/07/02/obituary-bryan-jeffery-leech/)
Leech died on June 30, 2015, in California.
*© Copyright 1976, 2004 Fred Bock Music Co., Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For further reading:
Bartlett, David L and Taylor, Barbara Brown, editors, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Forbis, Wesley L, Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal. Nashville: Convention Press, 1992.
Hays, Richard B., Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: First Corinthians. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.
Music, David W. and Price, Milburn, A Survey of Christian Hymnody, 5th Edition. Carol Stream: Hope Publishing Company, 2010.
Nash, Robert Scott, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: I Corinthians. Macon: Smyth & Helwys Publishing Inc., 2009.
“Obituary: Bryan Jeffery Leech.” Covenant Companion. July 2, 2015, http://covenantcompanion.com/2015/07/02/obituary-bryan-jeffery-leech/
Perkins, Pheme, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: First and Second Peter, James, and Jude. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.
Simons, John E., coordinating editor, Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship. Macon: Celebrating Grace, Inc., 2010.
"We Are God’s People, the Chosen of the Lord." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/w/we-are-god’s-people,-the-chosen-of-the-lord.
“We Are God’s People,” www.hymnary.org
About this week’s writer:
Rev. Thomas L. (Tom) Baynham, Jr., is the Interim Director of Music at Friedens United Church of Christ (UCC) in St. Charles, Missouri. He has served in church music for congregations in Virginia, Indiana, and New Hampshire. A native of Richmond, Virginia, Tom holds degrees from the Boston University School of Theology (2015, Master of Sacred Theology) and the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond (2014, Master of Divinity). Tom is an active member of The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada, and he serves on the advisory team for The Center for Congregational Song.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.