History of Hymns: "What Gift Can We Bring"
By C. Michael Hawn
"What Gift Can We Bring"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 87
What gift can we bring, what present, what token?
What words can convey it, the joy of this day?
When grateful we come, remembering, rejoicing,
what song can we offer in honor and praise?*
"Sing to the Lord a new song," says the psalmist in Psalms 96, 98, and 149. Imagine having a composer in your congregation who has published many anthems for the choirs. Then imagine having a published hymn writer who has also published hymn texts and tunes. Finally, imagine that she published her first anthem in 1954 – almost 60 years ago – and it still is in print!
Jane Manton Marshall (b. 1924) has established herself as a leading composer of church music, teaching conducting and composition for more than two decades at Southern Methodist University. From 1975-2010, she served an integral role in the Church Music Summer School, hosted by Perkins School of Theology, to provide training for musicians who have not usually attended seminary. As a clinician and composer, Mrs. Marshall has had a profound influence on at least two generations of church musicians.
Her anthems are carried by numerous publishers, and she has received lifetime achievement awards for her contribution to church music by the Southern Baptist Church Music Conference and the Fellowship of United Methodist Musicians and Worship Arts. In addition to "What Gift Can We Bring," Marshall contributed greatly to The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), especially in the area of responses for the psalms. Grace, Noted, a collection of her homilies and essays, was published in 1992.
The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal has noted: "Marshall's experience as director of music in the Dallas area informed her composition of more than 200 durable anthems and songs for all ages. Many of her compositions are standard items in academic and church choral libraries. Marshall is in a very select group of successful composers/lyricists, a dual-talent exemplified in her early works: 'Awake my heart,' 'My Eternal King,' 'He Comes to Us,' the first setting of Albert Schweitzer's words; and 'Fanfare for Easter.'"
The Rev. John Thornburg, a United Methodist hymn writer, served as her pastor during the 1990s. She mentored the Rev. Thornburg, and they often partnered, her writing texts he wrote, and the tunes she composed for them. Examples of their work may be found in Can God Be Seen in Other Ways (2003) and What Gift Can We Bring (2003). The second volume derives its title from her most well known hymn, "What gift can we bring."
Jane Marshall’s "What gift can we bring" is a hymn of pure gratitude. A lifelong Dallas resident, she composed this hymn in 1980 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of her congregation, Northaven United Methodist Church. Stanza two reflects on heritage, giving thanks for the past and those "who planted and watered so dreams could come true." Stanza three looks to the future that is "full of surprises," yet knowing that regardless of what happens, "we rest in God’s keeping and live in God’s love."
The hymn originally had three stanzas, but the author cleverly adapted the last stanza from the text of stanza one as an affirmation and summation. In this form, it appeared first in the Supplement to the Book of Hymns in 1982 and subsequently in a number of hymnals published in North America. Mrs. Marshall wrote both the text and the tune for this hymn. Tune writers usually name tunes, so Marshall chose the name that fit the occasion, ANNIVERSARY SONG.
Interestingly, Jane Marshall and the Rev. Thornburg also collaborated on a hymn for the fiftieth anniversary of Northaven, "Family of God." Commenting on their relationship, he notes: "Jane's combination of keen musicality, theological depth and humor made her a wonderful companion in creativity. The sixteen hymns in our collection, Can God Be Seen in Other Ways, were all written in a period of six weeks, and they were among the most meaningful six weeks of my life."
One may find Jane Marshall at Northaven United Methodist Church on any given Sunday morning. It is not unusual for the choir to sing one of her recent anthems or for the congregation to sing a new tune to a text she has chosen. As Jane Marshall nears the completion of nearly nine decades, former students, those who have attended Jane’s many workshops, church musicians, and those who sing her hymns throughout the United States give gratitude for her many contributions to the congregation’s and choir’s song.