Above: Reginald Heber
Image in the Public Domain
REGINALD HEBER (APRIL 21, 1783-APRIL 3, 1826)
Anglican Bishop of Calcutta and Hymn Writer
The feast day of Reginald Heber in the Church of North India is April 3. The Book of Worship of the Church of North India (1995) lists his citation as “Reginald Heber (1826): Bishop, Evangelist.”
Reginald Heber came from an old and prominent Yorkshire family and became a great poet. He, born at Malpas, Cheshire, England, on April 21, 1783, was a son of Reginald Heber (Sr., I guess), the Anglican Rector of Hodnet. (Aside: Would using suffixes, such as “Sr.,” “Jr.,” and “III” have been so difficult?) Young Reginald Heber received a fine education, which he used. At the age of seven years he translated Phaedrus, a Socratic dialogue, into English. Later, at Brasenose College, Oxford, our saint won the prize for the best Latin poem and won the Newdigate Prize for the poem Palestine. Heber, a Fellow of All Souls College, toured Europe with a friend in 1806.
Then Heber became an Anglican priest. In 1807 he took Holy Orders. From 1807 to 1823 served as the Rector of Hodnet. Along the way he did the following:
- He married Amelia Shipley (in 1809) and had to children with her.
- He began to publish hymns keyed to the church year in the Christian Observer (in 1811 forward) and worked on Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year, completed by Amelia and published in 1827. Heber contributed 57 of the 98 hymns.
- He became the Prebendary of St. Asaph (1812).
- He delivered the Bampton Lectures in 1815. His topic was The Personality and Office of the Comforter.
- He became the Preacher at Lincoln’s Inn, London (1822).
Heber was a liturgical pioneer. At the time proper Anglicans sang metrical Psalms and dissenters from the Established Church sang hymns. Our saint, however, embraced the singing of hymns and set out to write texts that would stand the test of time. Three ideas guided him as he composed hymn texts:
- The hymn must be part of the liturgy of the Church and must therefore adapt itself to the Church calendar.
- The hymn should come after the Nicene Creed and complement the message of the sermon.
- It should be a literary masterpiece.
–Quoted in Armin Haeussler, The Story of Our Hymns: The Handbook to the Hymnal of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (1952), page 713
I have added 12 of Heber’s texts addressed to God at my GATHERED PRAYERS weblog. One might already know “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!,” a hymn for Trinity Sunday, but one might not be familiar with the splendid “When Spring Unlocks the Flowers.” Unfortunately, many of Heber’s hymns have fallen out of use; I had to find most of those 12 hymns in old hymnals, some of them about a century old.
Heber’s final title was Bishop of Calcutta (1823-1826). He had a challenging task, for he was the missionary bishop of all of British India. Our saint worked hard until he died of apoplexy on April 3, 1826, 18 days short of his forty-third birthday.
Heber has not failed to attract criticism post-mortem. Many of those negative words have been due to a particular hymn, dated 1819:
From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain.
What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile:
In vain with lavish kindness
The gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness
Bows down to wood and stone.
Can we, whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has learned Messiah’s Name.
Waft, waft, ye winds, his story,
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till like a sea of glory
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign.
This hymn has long been a lightning rod for a variety of constituencies. “And only man is vile” (from the second stanza), a reference to Original Sin, has offended non-Christians and some Christians alike. Also, the end of the second stanza, with its imagery of heathens bowing down to wood and stone has offended many. These criticisms have really been about allegations of imperialism and ethnocentrism. As I learned in Anthropology 101 many moons ago, both cultural relativism and ethnocentrism are fallacies. I would be surprised if Heber were free of any degree of ethnocentrism, but I have also detected cultural relativism in criticisms of the hymn.
This hymn has fallen out of favor in modern hymnody. It has, of course, fallen into disuse in mainline churches, as measured by denominational hymnals. The hymn has also fallen out of favor in more conservative denominations, as measured by their hymnals. I, as a collector of hymnals, have consulted my library and found that, in the current generation of conservative Protestant denominational hymnals, the following volumes, successors to volumes that included this hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” is absent:
- Baptist Hymnal (2008),
- The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook (1996),
- Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (1996),
- Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (2013),
- Lutheran Service Book (2006), and
- Trinity Hymnal–Revised Edition (1990).
Furthermore, the official list of hymns for the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (scheduled for publication in late 2017), successor to the Trinity Hymnal–Revised Edition (1990), does not include “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains.” Nevertheless, the Ambassador Hymnal for Lutheran Worship (1994) does.
More people should lighten up.
Heber could have led a life of relative ease at Hodnet, but he accepted the challenge to become a missionary bishop. He spent his life glorifying God and left a legacy in souls and in theologically dense and well-composed hymn texts. He was certainly worthy of recognition as a saint.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
FEBRUARY 24, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT MATTHIAS THE APOSTLE, MARTYR
Dear God of beauty,
you have granted literary ability and spiritual sensitivity to
Reginald Heber 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