History of Hymns: “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations”
“We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” by Henry Ernest Nichol;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 569
We’ve a story to tell to the nations,
That shall turn their hearts to the right,
A story of truth and mercy,
A story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
And the dawning to noonday bright;
And Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
The kingdom of love and light.
If you attended Sunday school or vacation Bible school in the United States any time during the twentieth century, you are likely familiar with “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” This gospel hymn was written in 1896 by Henry Ernest Nichol (1862-1926), a British civil engineering student turned musician. Nichol frequently signed his texts with pseudonym, an anagram of his middle and last names — Colin Sterne. According to Hymnary.org, Nichol/Sterne wrote around 130 hymns, almost all for children. Most were included only in Sunday school songbooks rather than larger hymnals. Even so, few made it into more than two publications. “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” on the other hand, which was first published in 1896 in London in The Sunday School Hymnary, has been included in at least 250 songbooks and hymnals. According to William J. Reynolds, a Southern Baptist musician and scholar, in the Companion to Baptist Hymnal (1976), this text’s first printing in the United States was probably in Turner’s Hymns and Tunes for Schools, published in 1908.
Carlton R. Young, in the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, writes, “This hymn . . . is typical of hundreds that were written to express the determined, dynamic, energetic, and expansive attributes of . . . Christian missions” (Young, 1993, 686). He goes on to describe these songs and their reflection of the theology of missions at the time. Christians in the Western world, and especially in the United States, saw their version of religion as superior to the culture and belief systems elsewhere in the world. In the early twenty-first century, this view of Christian missions continues in some areas, but it has been gradually changing in most of the Western church, leaning more toward building mission partnerships instead of hierarchical relationships.
What has made this particular gospel hymn so popular through the years despite its narrow concept of missions? And what about it has compelled hymnal editors to continue including it a century or more after its writing? Stanzas 1, 2, and 4 certainly set up the disparity of “us” and “them” common to the time period. The third stanza differs slightly with its use of “us”: God has “sent us his son to save us.” Even with the attention drawn to religious and cultural differences and the resulting superior/inferior dichotomy, Young argues that this text encourages peace and unity found in Jesus Christ, thus its survival into contemporary hymnals.
As is the case for many of his texts, Nichol also wrote new music for “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” MESSAGE is lively and march-like, supporting the feeling of going out to spread the gospel. Words and music are similar in content and mood to other songs of the period included in The United Methodist Hymnal, such as Arthur Sullivan’s ST. GERTRUDE (“Onward, Christian Soldiers,” UMH 575), James Walch’s TIDINGS (“O Zion, Haste,” UMH 573), and William H. Doane’s RESCUE (Fanny Crosby’s “Rescue the Perishing,” UMH 591).
Rinda Coleman, in her column about Nichol’s hymn in the Chalice Hymnal Worship Leader’s Companion, explains that this style of hymn was part of an effort to maintain Christians’ enthusiasm for mission projects, and, in turn, secure their energy and money toward these endeavors. She suggests that “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations” be used as a closing hymn, reminding worshipers that they are to be missionaries throughout the week.
For further reading:
Coleman, Rinda. “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” Chalice Hymnal: Worship Leader's Companion. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 1998, No. 484.
“H. Ernest Nichol.” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/person/Nichol_HE.
Reynolds, William Jensen. “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” Companion to Baptist Hymnal. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976, 237.
Stanislaw, Richard J., and Don Hustad. “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” Companion to The Worshiping Church: a Hymnal. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Pub. Co., 1993, 184.
Watson, J. R. "Henry Ernest Nichol." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed June 30, 2018, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/henry-ernest-nichol.
“We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” Hymnary.org, https://hymnary.org/text/weve_a_story_to_tell_to_the_nations.
Young, Carlton R. Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993, 686-687.
About this week’s writer:
Kelly Tennille Grooms holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and a master’s degree and bachelor’s degree in organ performance from Indiana University, Bloomington, and Mars Hill College, respectively. She and her husband own and operate Grooms & Payne, Ltd. Pipe Organ Builders. She is an active recitalist and hymn festival leader.
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.