History of Hymns: 'Whom Shall I Send?'
By Joshua Taylor
“Whom Shall I Send?”
by Fred Pratt Green,
The United Methodist Hymnal, 582
Whom shall I send? our Maker cries;
and many, when they hear God’s voice,
are sure where their vocation lies;
but many shrink from such a choice.*
* ©1968, 1971 Hope Publishing Company (Carol Stream, IL 60188). Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Trinity Sunday, the Sunday in the liturgical calendar immediately following Pentecost, brings together two seemingly disparate topics: the doctrine of the Trinity and the responsibility of discipleship that begins with the story in the second chapter of Acts. United Methodist liturgical theologian Daniel T. Benedict notes in his article “Trinity Sunday” for Discipleship Ministries that:
We are a people born and bred to praise the triune God and to live lives grounded in God as Trinity… [Trinity Sunday provides the opportunity for] serious soul searching about what it means to be a people who know a God whose presence and action is revealed and active as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Benedict, n.p.).
What are we called to do as Christians?
The call to live as disciples, baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19-20) provides the formula of our Christian response for Trinity Sunday.
Who is to answer this call?
Isaiah 6:1-8, the appointed Old Testament passage in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, provides the question. In verse 8, God calls out, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The writer faithfully responds, “Here am I; send me!” British Methodist pastor Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), providing a hymn based on this scripture, “Whom Shall I Send?,” voices a musical response.
Written in 1970, “Whom Shall I Send?” was commissioned by the Presbyterian Church in Canada for a meeting of youth considering Christian ministry as a vocation (Young, 706). It was first published in the author’s 26 Hymns (1971) in Great Britain and then in The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green, ed. Bernard Braley (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co, 1982). The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) is the only denominational collection in the United States to incorporate this hymn.
The first stanza, written in a simple abab rhyme scheme, leaves room for doubt in the response of the faithful, joining a corpus of relatively few hymns that have provided space for such questions. (See the full text at https://www.hopepublishing.com/find-hymns-hw/hw3090.aspx.)
In his General Rules for membership in the Methodist Society (1738), John Wesley held that the only thing required of those seeking to become members was, “a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.” In laying out his three primary rules, Wesley called all who sought to be members to do no harm by avoiding evil of every kind. (United Methodist Church, n.p.). Pratt Green’s hymn acknowledges the challenge of adhering to this rule for those considering Christian vocation. He aptly names the predicament in his second stanza:
For who can serve a God so pure,
or claim to speak in such a name…
while doubt makes every step unsure,
and self-confuses every aim.*
However, Wesley points out that wherever this [desire] is really fixed in the soul, it will be shown by its fruits,” suggesting a movement to deeper faith by those who desire it. Similarly, Pratt Green’s hymn pivots in the third stanza to acknowledging the power of God to work through the person whom God has called. Pratt Green writes, “And yet, believing God who calls / knows what we are and still may be.” The third stanza ends with a declaration drawn directly from Isaiah 6:8, “Lord, send me!” He concludes in the fourth stanza with, “those who are called God purifies.” Like Abraham, Moses, Naomi, David, the disciples, and Paul, Pratt Green’s poetry recognizes God’s choice to work through flawed people to share hope with a flawed world.
Set to the tune DEUS TUORUM MILITUM, “Whom Shall I Send?” is one hymn among over 100 hymn texts by Fred Pratt Green that appear in denominational hymnals today (Hymnary.org). Born in 1903 near Liverpool, Pratt Green was a Methodist minister who published his first collection of hymns in 1971. Especially popular in the United States thanks to the promotion of eminent British hymnologist Erik Routley (1917-1982), Pratt Green was named a fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 1982. The deliberate and simple language, as well as the popularity and proliferation of his hymns in hymnals published since 1970 in the UK and USA, frequently drew comparisons to Charles Wesley (1707-1788), much to the author’s chagrin (Harris, n. p.).
“Whom Shall I Send?” joins other hymns by Fred Pratt Green in capturing the human condition and the challenges of living a faithful life—including the better known “How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord” (1981), which highlights many of the same themes. (See full text at https://www.hopepublishing.com/find-hymns-hw/hw3282.aspx.) The hymn might also be paired in worship with Daniel Schutte’s (b. 1947) “Here I Am, Lord” (1981). Like Pratt Green’s text, Schutte’s song highlights the paradox of the powerful God with the “poor” people being called (Hawn, n.p.). Pairing the two provides the opportunity to highlight the different musical approaches of contemporary hymnody and Roman Catholic renewal music for the same scripture reference.
“Whom Shall I Send?” is also an appropriate selection for ordination services.
Sources and Further Reading:
Daniel T. Benedict. “Trinity Sunday.” Discipleship Ministries https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/trinity-sunday.
Maureen Harris. “Fred Pratt Green.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed March 13, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/f/fred-pratt-green.
C. Michael Hawn. “History of Hymns: Here I Am, Lord.” Discipleship Ministries. https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-here-i-am-lord.
John Wesley’s General Rules of United Societies, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-general-rules-of-the-methodist-church.
Carlton Young. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Joshua Taylor is the Director of Worship and Music at First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, Texas and a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music program at Perkins School of Theology, SMU, where he studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.