Home History of Hymns: "When Jesus the Healer Passed through Galilee"

History of Hymns: "When Jesus the Healer Passed through Galilee"

"When Jesus the Healer Passed through Galilee"
Peter D. Smith
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 263

When Jesus the healer passed through Galilee,
Heal us, heal us today!
the deaf came to hear and the blind came to see.
Heal us, Lord Jesus!*

During the season of Epiphany, we recall those actions of Jesus, especially the miracles, that demonstrate that he was indeed the Christ, the Son of God. “When Jesus the healer” provides a compendium of many of Christ’s miraculous healing activities.

Peter David Smith was born in Weybridge, Surrey, England, in 1938. After working for a time in the aircraft industry, he became a Methodist minister. A hallmark of his ministry was his gift as a folksinger. Though trained as a classical pianist, the folk guitar became his instrument of choice. He edited several popular song collections including Faith, Folk, and Charity (1968), Faith, Folk and Nativity (1969), Faith, Folk, and Festivity (1969), and New Orbit (1972). These collections appeared during the height of the popularity of the folk music idiom.

The folk idiom in the service of the church provides an immediacy and accessibility to great biblical truths. While classical hymnody often engages through the depth of metaphors and symbolic use of language, the more colloquial language of the folk idiom captures us with its earthiness—what you see is what you get. The music of a successful folksong must be easily learned—captured immediately—or it works against the directness of the language.

Folksongs often tell stories, or have a narrative quality. The guitar is the preferred instrument of the folksinger. Its portability and accessibility invite participation. An organ or even a piano might separate the singer and the people, both in physical and psychological space, but not the guitar.

In many ways, Christian folksingers of the 1960s and 1970s find their roots in the songs of Woody Guthrie (1912-1967), Pete Seeger (b. 1919) and Bob Dylan (b. 1941), to name a few. However, the prototype of the Christian folksong may be found in Sydney Carter (1915-2004) and his famous “Lord of the Dance” (1963). Carter shocked the faithful and endeared himself to the prophets in the church. While he is known primarily for “Lord of the Dance” in the United States, many more of his songs are commonly sung in England.

The overarching narrative of Jesus as healer guides this hymn. In a mere 22 syllables and a brief refrain, the author opens up an entire healing narrative in each stanza: stanza 1, Luke 4:31-41; stanza 2, Mark 2:3-12; stanza 3, Mark 5:22-24, 35-43; stanza 4, Mark 10:46-52; stanzas 5 and 6, Matthew 10:5-15. A soloist carries the weight of the narrative in the third person while the people respond from the perspective of those needing healing in the first person plural: “Heal us, heal us today!”

Mr. Smith composed this song during a course he was teaching on contemporary worship for the Iona Community in 1975. Later, he served on the editorial committee for the hymnal, Partners in Praise (1979), and this was one of ten contributions by the composer included in its contents.

One stanza was omitted due to sensitivity to discriminatory language and a slight alteration to one line in stanza five was made for the same reason. Other than that, the hymn comes to us as originally composed.

The composer skillfully draws the people into the narrative in the final stanza by pointing out that the need for Christ’s healing power is still with us today: “There’s still so much sickness and suffering today. . . . We gather together for healing and pray: Heal us, Lord Jesus!”

*© 1979 Stainer & Bell, Ltd. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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

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