Above: The Signature of Harry Webb Farrington
Image Source = Ghpierson
HARRY WEBB FARRINGTON (JULY 14, 1879-OCTOBER 27, 1930)
U.S. Methodist Minister and Hymn Writer
Before I write about Farrington’s life and legacy I choose to focus on a technical matter germane to the preparation of this post. I have a collection of hymnals and their companion volumes. I also consult certain hymn websites as well as government records (available online) and newspapers.com, the only website I pay to use. Some of these sources contradict each other regarding the dates (even the year) and locations of both Farrington’s fateful accident as well as his death. As a matter of principle I am tolerant of a range of opinions yet insist that objective reality is fixed. In other words, Farrington died at a place on a given date; this is not a subjective matter. Information regarding that question is either accurate or inaccurate. Some say he died on October 25; others on October 27. Certain sources indicate that Farrington died in 1930, but others place his death in 1931. I tell you, O reader, that I have researched this matter, weighed sources against each other, and endeavored to write accurately of our saint’s life and legacy. If I have not succeeded fully, that fact has not resulted from a lack of effort.
Harry Webb Farrington devoted his life to the glory of God and the benefit of others, especially children. He, born at Nassau, the Bahamas, to William Farrington and Emma Russell Farrington on July 14, 1879, became an orphan while an infant. Our saint grew up a Methodist in Maryland (starting in Baltimore). He studied at Darlington Academy, Darlington, and had a conversion experience at the Darlington Methodist Episcopal Church. Our saint became a Methodist minister, serving in New England starting in 1903. He continued his studies at Dickinson Seminary, Syracuse University (B.A., 1907). While there he played basketball and football. Farrington went on to study at the Boston University School of Theology (S.T.B., 1910) before entering a M.A. program in philosophy and education at Harvard University in 1910.
In 1910, at Harvard, Farrington entered a poem into a Christmas hymn contest at the university. His submission, “I Know Not How that Bethlehem’s Babe,” was the prize-winning text. It became a staple of many denominational hymnals in the early and middle twentieth century and was, by 1966, the only one of his 29 hymns still in common use. The Methodist Hymnal (1935) contained two of Farrington’s hymns, including the text from 1910. That number decreased to one in The Methodist Hymnal (1966) and none in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989).
I know not how that Bethlehem’s Babe
Could in the Godhead be;
I only know the manger Child
Has brought God’s life to me.
I know not how that Calvary’s cross
A world from sin could free;
I only know its matchless love
Has brought God’s love to me.
I know not that Joseph’s tomb
Could solve death’s mystery;
I only know a living Christ,
Farrington’s other prize-winning hymn was “Dear Lord, Who Sought at Dawn of Day” (1925), for which the Homilietical Review honored him in 1927.
After our saint received his degree from Harvard he taught there for a year then, in 1914, went to work for the Methodist Episcopal Church as a field secretary for the Board of Sunday Schools. He pioneered weekday religious education for young people in Gary, Indiana, in 1914 and in the City of New York two years later.
Farrington participated in World War I. He was, in fact, the first American citizen to receive a commission in the French army, in 1918. For his work, which was directing athletics for the French army, he received a lifelong commission in the 7th and 10th Cuirassiers and the title Marechal des Logis Adjutant au Colonel, equivalent to the rank of major in the U.S. Army. At the time the only non-Frenchman to hold that rank was the King of Italy.
Farrington, back in the United States in 1919, began the next phase of his life. He became assistant minister of Grace Methodist Episcopal Church, New York City. On June 24, 1920, he married Dora Wilhemina Davis, daughter of Methodist missionaries to India. Both the husband and the wife were 39 years old. From 1920 to 1923 our saint served as the Director of Education of the Methodist Church Welfare League. Farrington lectured in New York City schools through 1928 and traveled to lecture in other places about religious education and social ethics also. Over the years he spoke to more than 2,500,000 young people.
Farrington also published books, including seven volumes of poetry, an autobiography, and profiles of great Americans. His published works included the following;
- Poems from France (1920);
- Rough and Brown (1921);
- Walls of America; or, The House of Uncle Sam (1925);
- Cher Ami (1926); and
- Kilts to Togs (1930).
Farrington died in 1930. On July 2, at Ocean Grove, New Jersey, he fell from a second-story porch and fell 15 feet to a concrete sidewalk when a railing gave way. This accident paralyzed the 49-year-old minister. He did, aged 50 years, at the Methodist Episcopal Hospital in Brooklyn on October 27. His widow published two posthumous volumes (Valleys and Visions and Land of Only If) of his poetry in 1932.
I have found titles of seven of Farrington’s hymns. Of those I have located the texts of four. Of those four I have incorporated the text of one into this post and added the texts of three to my GATHERED PRAYERS weblog. I have yet to find the texts of twenty-five of Farrington’s hymns, including the following:
- “Our Father Made the Lovely Earth,”
- “The Storm God of Stern Sinai’s Hill,” and
- “The World Came to My Home Today.”
Those three hymns were available in hymnals for children, appropriately.
Armin Haeussler described Farrington as
a man of keen intellect, brave heart, high purpose, and profound faith in Christ.
—The Story of Our Hymns: The Handbook to the Hymnal of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (1952), page 651
That was an accurate assessment.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JULY 15, 2015 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT BONAVENTURE, THEOLOGIAN
Dear God of beauty,
you have granted literary ability and spiritual sensitivity to
Harry Webb Farrington and others, who have composed hymn texts.
May we, as you guide us,
find worthy hymn texts to be icons,
through which we see you.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 44:1-3a, 5-15
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
APRIL 20, 2013 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINTS AMATOR OF AUXERRE AND GERMANUS OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS; SAINT MAMERTINUS OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT; AND SAINT MARCIAN OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK
THE FEAST OF JOHANNES BUGENHAGEN, GERMAN LUTHERAN PASTOR
THE FEAST OF SAINT MARCELLINUS OF EMBRUN, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP
THE FEAST OF OLAVUS AND LAURENTIUS PETRI, RENEWERS OF THE CHURCH