I HAVE written about several hymns which have been messed about with by heavy-handed editors who wrongly thought they were cleverer than the writer. This is the first one I have found where the original, though lovely, has been greatly improved, and I am sure the writer would have been thrilled with the result.
Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer was originally a poem by Love Maria Whitcomb Willis (1824-1908), who was born in Hancock, New Hampshire and named after her mother, Love Foster, daughter of a prominent Unitarian minister.
Her father, Henry Whitcomb, and her uncle, John Whitcomb, were among the leading men of the community, and were very close. Henry and John built a large square house suitable for two families, each side a mirror image of the other, with the two kitchens sharing a central hearth, and both married on the same day, December 26, 1813.
Love Maria was only six years old when her father died in 1831 in an accident while handling a horse. He was 44. While she was growing up, one of her two siblings died as well as three of her four cousins who lived under the same roof. William Willis Hayward, who wrote The History of Hancock, New Hampshire (1889), said that Love Maria told him: ‘The cloud so suddenly gathered never quite left the household.’
The series of tragedies may have been responsible for turning Love Maria towards the Spiritualist movement. She wrote extensively for the Spiritualist magazine Tiffany’s Monthly on such diverse topics as aesthetics, theology, logic, philosophy, and psychology. She was later the editor of the children’s department in Banner of Light, a Spiritualist magazine in Boston, and co-edited the New York department of The Present Age, a Chicago-based Spiritualist journal.
Through the Spiritualist movement she met Frederick Willis, a childhood friend of the famed Alcott sisters, and believed by some to have been the inspiration for the character Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence in Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women. Willis was studying at Harvard Divinity School and hoped to be a minister, but his growing involvement in Spiritualism led to his expulsion in 1857. During this tumultuous time Maria Love’s poem entitled Prayer, with the first line ‘Father, hear the prayer I offer’ was published in Tiffany’s Monthly. The same volume contained a defence of Willis and a criticism of Harvard’s action by anti-slavery activist Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The following year Love Maria and Willis were married. He spent the next seven years training for a career in medicine, graduating from the New York Medical College in 1865.
Mrs Willis’s poem first appeared as a hymn in Psalms of Life published in 1857 by John Stowell Adams, a Boston Spiritualist. There were minor changes, chiefly replacing singular pronouns with plural to make it more appropriate for congregational singing.
Subsequently it underwent major revision by clergyman and hymn-writer Samuel Longfellow, younger brother of the renowned American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for his 1860 Book of Hymns and Tunes. As an editor should, he kept the best of the original and polished it.
This is Mrs Willis’s first verse:
Father, hear the prayer I offer;
For sweet peace I do not cry,
But for grace that I may ever
Live my life courageously.
This is Longfellow:
Father, hear the prayer we offer:
Nor for ease that prayer shall be,
But for strength, that we may ever
Live our lives courageously.
Mrs Willis’s second verse:
Not within the fresh green pastures,
Will I ask that I may lie,
But the steep and rugged pathway,
That I tread rejoicingly.
Not forever in green pastures
Do we ask our way to be,
But the steep and rugged pathway
May we tread rejoicingly.
Mrs Willis’s verse 3:
Not beside the clear, still waters,
Do I pray thou wilt me guide,
But I’d smite the rocky pillar,
Whence the living spring may glide.
Not forever by still waters
Would we idly, quiet stay;
But would smite the living fountains
From the rocks along our way.
The following two verses from the original were omitted by Longfellow:
If I go where flowers of summer
Still the ragged path adorn,
Let me weave them into garlands,
Tho’ each one should bear a thorn.
Not the glorious sunlight only
Will I crave, oh God, of Thee,
But to see Thy fiery pillar
In the darkness guiding me.
Mrs Willis’s surviving verse 4:
Be my strength in every weakness;
In my doubt be Thou my guide;
Through each peril, through each danger,
Draw me nearer to Thy side
Be our strength in hours of weakness,
In our wanderings be our Guide;
Through endeavour, failure, danger,
Father, be Thou at our side.
Some time later a fifth verse was added:
Let our path be bright or dreary,
Storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls in hope unweary
Make Thy work our ceaseless prayer.
The writer is not known and I am not sure if it is included in many hymnals.
The first tune used for the hymn was St Sylvester by the English clergyman John Bacchus Dykes, whose other works include Horbury (Nearer, my God, to Thee); Melita, (Eternal Father, Strong to Save) and Dominus Regit Me (The King of Love my shepherd is).
I can’t find a recording of Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer with St Sylvester but here is the tune.
I think it is still used in America but in Britain the usual tune is Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sussex. He collected it in November 1905 as a song called The Royal George from Mrs Harriet Verrall in Monk’s Gate, near Horsham in Sussex. He arranged it to Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer for the 1906 English Hymnal which he co-edited. (Mrs Verrall was also the source of the tune Monk’s Gate which Vaughan Williams used to accompany To Be a Pilgrim, which I wrote about here.)
Here is the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, with Father, Hear the Prayer We Offer to Vaughan Williams’s Sussex:
And here are the Exultate Singers.