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History of Hymns: "When Our Confidence Is Shaken"

By C. Michael Hawn

"When Our Confidence Is Shaken"
Fred Pratt Green
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 505

Fred Pratt Green

When our confidence is shaken
in beliefs we thought secure,
when the spirit in its sickness
seeks but cannot find a cure,
God is active in the tensions
of a faith not yet mature.

Hymns have spoken to our suffering, fears, and doubts throughout the centuries. In the eighteenth century, Charles Wesley wrote:

Give to the winds thy fears;
hope and be undismayed.
God hears thy sighs and counts thy tears,
God shall lift up thy head.
(UM Hymnal, No. 129)

Horatio G. Spafford wrote in the last half of the nineteenth century:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
(UM Hymnal, No. 377)

At the turn of the twentieth century, Methodist pastor Charles Tindley led his congregation in singing, "When the storms of life are raging, stand by me . . .." (UM Hymnal, No. 512)

Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) offers a much more explicit hymn that addresses the crisis of faith experienced by many in our age. Written in the years immediately following the publication of Anglican Bishop John A. T. Robinson's controversial book, Honest to God (1963), Green labels our existential doubts and offers hope.

Bishop Robinson introduced topics such as "situational ethics" and "secular theology for secular man" to many who were seeking truth in a world with much less certainty than before. Many conservative or traditional theologians condemned Robinson's book, while liberal theologians welcomed his thinking. For example, popular author C. S. Lewis, in his last interview before his death, was asked, "What do you think of the controversial new book Honest to God, by John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich?" Lewis replied rather enigmatically, "I prefer being honest, to being 'honest to God.'"

Few hymns of earlier centuries address crises of faith as those addressed in stanza one: "the spirit in sickness seeks but cannot find a cure." In stanza two, the author confronts the ultimate doubts: "our research leads us to the ultimate unknown." In a bold statement, Pratt Green concludes the stanza:

Faith must die, or come full circle
to its source in God alone.

Stanza three encourages us to maintain the "discipline of praying, when it’s hardest to believe." The final stanza states unequivocally: "God is love, and thus redeems us in the Christ we crucify." The author concludes that even in a crisis of faith . . .

May we in this faith maturing
be content to live and die!

This is an excellent example of congregational song that speaks to a world of what may seem to us to be systemic uncertainty. While earlier hymns often were inspired by personal loss or tragedy, we now move into a realm of pervasive fear and doubt. When all is said and done, we return to faith: "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was born at Roby, near Liverpool, England, and was ordained in 1928. He began writing hymns only in 1969 after retiring from active parish ministry. Despite his late start as a composer of hymn texts, he is known as one of the greatest hymn writers of the twentieth century. In fact, in the foreword to the first compilation of his hymns, The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green (1982), he was acclaimed as the greatest Methodist hymn writer since Charles Wesley by eminent British hymnologist Erik Routley. It is likely that his success in hymn writing was built upon his experience as a poet throughout his career. This hymn, entitled "A Mature Faith," was first included in Pratt Green’s 26 Hymns (1971).

The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, summarizes the content well: "[This hymn] affirms a God active in our doubts and the source where questions of faith return full circle. A mature faith stems from our discipline, prayer, and acceptance of God’s redemptive act in Christ."

* © 1971 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

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