PROBABLY not many hymns derive from a poem about making and taking drugs, but that is the unusual background to Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.
The poem, The Brewing of Soma, was written by the American Quaker poet and anti-slavery campaigner John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). He was one of the Fireside Poets, a 19th-century American group associated with New England. Others were Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Willian Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. Ralph Waldo Emerson is occasionally included in the group as well. Their domestic themes and messages of morality were very popular both with readers and critics, and the conventional forms of their poems made them easy to memorise and recite.
Whittier published The Brewing of Soma in 1872. Soma was a sacred ritual drink in the Vedic religion, a forerunner of Hinduism. It probably dated back to 2000 BC, and almost certainly had hallucinogenic properties, being prepared from unidentified plants which may have included ‘magic mushrooms’, cannabis and opium poppies.
The poem describes in shocked terms the Vedic habit of drinking Soma as a way of whipping up religious enthusiasm. It likens this to some Christians’ use of ‘music, incense, vigils drear, and trance, to bring the skies more near, or lift men up to heaven!’ The last verse of the section reads:
And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!
Whittier ends by describing the method for contact with the divine as practised by Quakers: sober lives dedicated to doing God’s will, seeking silence and selflessness to hear the ‘still, small voice’ of God. This is the subject matter of the last six verses, which were lifted to form the hymn. (The fifth verse is often omitted.)
In fact, as a Quaker Whittier would have disapproved of singing in church, but he seems to have made an exception in this case, and it was published by Garrett Horder in his 1884 Congregational Hymns. In America it was usually sung to the melody Rest by Frederick George Maker (1844-1927), a Bristol organist, and here is a brilliant rendition by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I am guessing this is from between 1962 and 1965.
The tune in common use in Britain was written by the English composer Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918) in 1888 for the contralto aria Long since in Egypt’s plenteous land in his oratorio Judith.
(Parry’s other works included the anthem I Was Glad for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 – it is performed here at the 2013 Westminster Abbey service to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation – and his 1916 setting of William Blake’s Jerusalem.
It was not easy to find a choir and organ version as Parry wrote it – most performances use the 1922 Elgar orchestration – but I came across this amateur video taken at Macy’s department store in Philadelphia, home to the truly magnificent Wanamaker organ, the largest fully playable instrument in the world.)
In 1924 George Gilbert Stocks, director of music at Repton School in Derbyshire, obtained permission from Parry’s estate to set the words of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind to the Judith melody. To make it fit, the last line of each verse is repeated. The tune is now called Repton.
Here is a lovely traditional performance by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
But while I was looking around YouTube I found this quite different reading by Neil Hannon (who wrote the theme for Father Ted). I think it is terrific.