Biblical Perspectives Magazine, Volume 24, Number 28, July 3 to July 9, 2022

Hymns of the Faith:
"For the Beauty of the Earth"

By Dr. Bill Wymond

A Presentation of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi
Dr. Ligon Duncan, Dr. Derek Thomas, Dr. Bill Wymond

Dr. Wymond: Good morning! This is "Hymns of Faith," brought to you by Jackson's First Presbyterian Church. The minister of the First Presbyterian Church is Dr. Ligon Duncan. Stay tuned for "Hymns of the Faith." Here with "Hymns of Faith" now is Dr. Ligon Duncan.

Dr. Duncan: Thank you, Bill Wymond. Derek, it's great to be with you both this morning for "Hymns of the Faith."

And we're looking at a beautiful hymn this morning, For the Beauty of the Earth. I would imagine that many people in the audience, if you're my age or older, not only sang this song in church growing up but you probably sang it in public school, at least in elementary school. This was one of the songs I think I can remember singing between first and fifth grade in Donaldson Elementary School, which was a public school, in Greenville, South Carolina growing up. There were a number of hymns that were common to Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregational, sort of Independent Bible Church circles in the United States in the 193's, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s like this that would have been used in public school assemblies, and I'm pretty sure I can remember singing this one at Thanksgiving time and at other special occasions where there would be public assemblies where there would have been hymns sung. One of the leftovers I think of the Protestant establishment of the late nineteenth century in American culture even though we lived in a culture that ostensibly had a kind of separation between church and state. There was a bleed over. I can also remember singing this in Vacation Bible School as a child. It's one of the hymns that I still remember singing from my childhood.

There's some interesting background to it both on the side of the author and on the side of the composer and I want to look, as we always do, at the music and at the composer and at the author and at the text itself. Bill Wymond, do you want to play this hymn for us first and then you can tell us just a little bit about, is it Conrad Kocher, who is the composer? And then there's another arrangement, but let's hear the melody first so that everybody gets it in their head, because if you're fifty or older I think the minute you hear the first few notes of the first line you're going to know it immediately.

Dr. Wymond: Let me say something now about the tune and then something about the composer. The tune is a folksong like tune and it's really simple. It's in a pattern what we would call an A-A-B form, just as simple as you can get and it's a happy tune.

Dr. Duncan: And that means what? You have one line that repeats and then you go to sort of a chorus or a refrain.

Dr. Wymond: That's right and I'll show you how it goes. [plays tune] The line, of course, is just "For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies," and so that's repeated again which makes it really easy for people to learn. And then there's a refrain to it which sometimes we would call the chorus — "Lord of all to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise." So the tune is sort of a happy tune, it's a simple tune.

Dr. Duncan: It's especially exuberant because you're repeating the same words every time on the refrain, "Lord of all to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise." It really is a happy, exuberant sort of sound.

Dr. Wymond: So, for the business end, which is what I call the first two parts of the stanza, you have a sort of a normal kind of a tune, nothing real special about it, but it provides a way of talking about the beauty of the earth and the glory of the skies and all the things that we're happy for.

And then when you come to the refrain, the notes actually rise a little bit in pitch and they have a kind of an affirmation effect to them — "Lord of all to Thee we raise" — that just adds the sense that you're lifting up your voice because the notes go up like that.

And when they say, "to Thee" you have the highest note of all. And then you have an ascending line right at the end — "this our hymn of grateful praise" — which says, kind of a big "Amen" to me. Yes, that's what I want to do is to praise the Lord for what He's done. So it's a simple tune. It's sort of like a folksong to me.

And it was written by Conrad Kocher who was a German, born at the end of the eighteenth century and his life is sort of interesting to me. When he was sixteen years of age he went to Saint Petersburg. That was a far way to go from Germany and he went as a tutor.

But evidently he had always been involved in music and something happened in his life providentially and so he decided that really he should be a musician rather than a teacher. And he had a friendship with the well-known piano teacher, Clemente, who has written a lot of exercises for people who are learning the piano so he was an important piano teacher. And Clemente confirmed this decision to go into music. Evidently he saw the gifts so this young man then went to Rome which was also very adventuresome. Many people from northern Europe would go to Rome to study music because of the influence of the musicians from the eighteenth century that was still strong there and he studied the works of Palestrina whose works were at least two hundred years old by that time.

And he was so impressed with the form of this music that he decided part of his life's work would be to go back to Germany and reform church music. So he went back to Germany, he founded schools of music there, and he used four part singing, simple singing like this hymn is, in his schools to teach singing. And so for a long time he was in southern Germany in Stuttgart. He was the organist for a church called the Stish Skarga and during that whole time he revised hymn books and he wrote tunes and he taught singing. So his goal of helping to improve church music in Germany was realized. So that's the composer.

Dr. Duncan: That's fascinating to me for a couple of reasons. I know that, for instance, Vaughan Williams at the turn of the twentieth century decided that English hymnals left a lot to be desired from a musical standpoint and that he was desirous of producing students and others that would be interested in crafting really great tunes to go along with the singing. But you think of the Germans as always being good congregational singers. And I don't know anything about the history of the ebbs and the flows of congregational singing in Germany but it's interesting to me that a German would think that some improvement was needed in the singing. And I wonder, too, about the four-part singing. Were the Germans used to doing the part singing? I know that Calvin liked the unison singing. I would assume that the Germans would have been doing part singing before this. Can you clue us in on any of that?

Dr. Wymond: They were used to doing that because Martin Luther was so strong on teaching the congregation to sing well and his chorals were four-part chorals, so they learned that and also there was a real emphasis on teaching singing in the public schools and the private schools. Singing was an important part of their curriculum so it wouldn't have been unusual for him to be using four-part song.

You know, here in the United States, especially in the nineteenth century, there were certain people who worked hard at public school music. One of them was Lowell Mason who wrote a number of tunes that we like, and so there were "part books" published for singing and the public schools at that time thought it their responsibility to teach people to sing to promote music because of all the benefits.

Now we know scientifically the real beneficial effect of music on forming the minds of children. It actually affects the physiologically. It helps them in their reasoning powers, it helps them with mathematics, it wires their brains, and so all these people were on the right track in doing that.

Dr. Duncan: It is interesting to see in the United States, in England, and in Germany, people interested in choral music and in hymnody all doing similar things in terms of collecting hymns, writing down hymns, arranging hymns, maybe collecting melodies that were not previously transcribed and incorporating them in a hymn. You have Catherine Winkworth going to Germany to pick up tunes and songs and hymns and bringing them back to England. We talked about a Silesian song a few months ago, and that someone had to go out and listen to and record. It's interesting to see during that whole Romantic era the collection of the musical repository that we have now. Although I'm sure you have, presumably the Lutherans had had, hymn books with music in them for some time. I know in Britain the typical habit has been for congregations to have hymn books with words in them but not necessarily music in them. And I don't know again, Bill, the history of that, when congregations started having hymnals with music in them.

Dr. Wymond: Mid-nineteenth century is when, but for economies sake, for a long time even into the twentieth century folks just had the words. But I was thinking how important it was in all these countries and in other countries in central Europe to record the folk music of people, and today I'm wondering if there's any interest in that at all, and if they went around to record what would they record? There isn't this kind of collective body of music that's universally popular, partly because that has always been done through schools and schools have pretty much for economic reasons and other abandoned it.

Dr. Duncan: Well, pop-culture in the last fifty years has killed folk music except as a niche market, wouldn't you say?

Dr. Thomas: Well, also globalization I think has a part to play. You know it's interesting to me that when British pop bands sing they always sing with an American accent because it's a global culture.

Dr. Duncan: That's true. And sometimes you can't tell until you hear them speaking in an interview whether they're British or American.

Dr. Thomas: So that pocket of folk culture that would be true, say, of a tiny part of a country, I'm not sure that exists too much anymore.

Dr. Duncan: Well, you see it on Discovery Channel and PBS and BBC specials — there's always sort of a looking for the folk culture. But what I think is absolutely different is the pervasiveness of folk culture because even people that would have been, you know, sort of denizens of high culture would have been aware of the pervasive folk cultures that existed around them and interested in them. That's what so many of these hymnologists were doing in the nineteenth century.

And yet now I think what has been spread across cultures has been pop-culture rather than those sort of folk culture things. You know, I think even growing up, the diet of songs that we were taught in music in public school were the folk culture songs of the United States and Britain to a certain extent. For the last two, three hundred years we were educated in those songs, we learned those songs, we memorized those songs, and those were songs that we sang. And this is one of them interestingly and it does sort of fit into the folk culture music and in looking at the text I'll make a comment as to why I think this is one of them that we used.

Dr. Wymond: Let me just say — I know we don't want to carry on too long with this whole thing but what does concern me, because people are just singing less in the culture, the interest in getting around the piano has totally waned and so families are not singing, groups are not really singing very much, and so that impacts the church because people are not getting that stimulus outside of the church and that training that we used to sort of depend on. The schools aided the church in teaching people singing but then in the church we have this whole phenomenon which we've talked about before in certain areas where people are going to church and they're really not singing very much. They're watching people sing. It might be a small group as entertainment rather than some type of participatory thing so I kind of wonder what the future will bring as far as singing in concerned. Well, so much for that.

Dr. Duncan: Well, Derek, the text of this hymn was put together again during the mid-nineteenth century by Folliot Pierpoint.

Dr. Thomas: Yeah, I wondered if it was pronounced in the French-style Pierpoint.

Dr. Duncan: I don't know. I don't have my BBC self-pronouncing dictionary with me, but he was a high Anglican. So tell us just a little bit about him and then maybe a little bit about the Tractarian Movement.

Dr. Thomas: Oh, he has a wonderful name — Folliott Sandford Pierpoint, a wonderful name. He lived from 1845 to 1917 so eighty years. Born and raised in Bath to the southwest of England. Went to a very typical grammar school, went to Cambridge University, Queen's College, studied classics and taught classics, though he seems to have lived mainly in the southwest. He had a vicarage and a church in Somerset Shire for a time, but he's part of this Tractarian Movement in the nineteenth century. You know the Anglican church in Britain then and now is a broad church ranging from the likes of thorough-going conservative evangelicals like John Stott, Alec Motyer, and then all the way to the very edge of Catholicism, so you have these low church Anglicans and then you have these high church Anglicans.

Dr. Duncan: And one of the interesting things that's been happening in the last couple of years with the problems in the Anglican communion worldwide is to see the number of Anglican priests that are actually becoming Catholic priests.

Dr. Thomas: As happened in the Tractarian Movement to some extent, led, of course, by the famous cardinal Henry Newman who became a Roman Catholic. And the Tractarian Movement was more of a movement in Oxford I think, than it was in Cambridge, but this hymn is fascinating because I, like yourself, I remember singing this hymn in public school. I wasn't a Christian, but as soon as I hear the tune, DIX, I think of this hymn. It brings back memories of my teenage years and the grammar school that I went to. But in the Trinity Hymnal it occurs in the section called "Creation" because it begins, "For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies," and it looks like he was looking around the hills and countryside of Bath, which is a beautiful part of England to be sure.

Dr. Duncan: Yes it is.

Dr. Thomas: But in its original form it's one of these hymns that's been tinkered with because the refrain was actually quite different — "Christ our God to Thee we raise, this our sacrifice of praise." And the hymn was included in the section for the Lord's Supper or Eucharist in Anglican traditional language, and therefore as a high Anglican and as a Tractarian, this hymn was seen as "quasi-mass-like". So, the sacrifice of praise being spoken as particularly to Christ was that high Anglican semi, or semi as you say, Roman Catholic view of the Supper being a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ. You know lots of these hymns have been tinkered with and it's been protestantized.

Dr. Duncan: Do you know when that happened? I don't know because that is explicitly mentioned in a couple of the hymnologies that we've looked at but typically when that happens there's some indication of when but there isn't in the Trinity Hymnal. There isn't any indication of the editing of it.

Dr. Thomas: No, my wife would have spied it immediately, I'm sure, because the change is quite drastic. It then becomes the one that we're most familiar with — "Lord of all to Thee we raise, this our hymn of grateful praise."

Dr. Duncan: And there's my theory as to why this particular hymn would have been used in a generic, Protestant, public school educational context. That is, there's no explicit reference to Christ and to the Trinity. It's to the "Lord of all" and then the content of the praise is for things that would be accessible to anyone who simply had an appreciation for the created order — the beauties of the earth, the beauty of each hour, the joy of ear and eye, the joy of human love, for each perfect give of Thine, to our race so freely given. The language of the hymn is generic enough that it isn't exclusionary.

Dr. Thomas: And I think my theory would be its popularity has probably more to do with the tune than with the words.

Dr. Duncan: Yes, the tune is lovely. And this goes on — Bill has said this over and over about the folk origins of so many of the tunes and it does have the, especially because of the refrain, the very happy sort of sound to it, I think you're right. Looking at the content of each line before we listen to the hymn, Derek, these sorts of things are not uncommonly raised in the prophets and in the psalms as occasions for praise to God.

Dr. Thomas: And theologically it's important, I think, that we do underscore the value and use of general revelation. It's what Paul does in the opening chapter of Romans, so singing creation hymns — you might look at this hymn and say, "It's just a piece of sentimentality. It talks about flowers and birds and bees and sun and moon and stars and it's a children's hymn," but that would be a mistake.

Dr. Duncan: Yeah, and I love the inclusion in the first line for instance — "For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies." Talk just a little bit about these common blessings as an expression of the love of God.

Dr. Thomas: Well, there's a very appropriate text, I'm not sure it was the text that the author himself was thinking about, but the Trinity Hymnal has provided a text and we should, I think, look at those texts, those Biblical texts above the hymn — James 1:17 — "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." That's a tremendously significant statement that everything that we have is a gift from our Heavenly Father and to be able I think on a daily basis, hourly basis, minute by minute basis to recognize that everything we have — the rain that falls, the sun that shines, the food we eat, the breath we bread — is a gift from our Heavenly Father.

Dr. Duncan: And every one of the stanzas is going to ask us to think about some aspect of that that would be very easily overlooked. The second stanza, for instance, says, "For the beauty of each hour of the day and of the night," and just reminding us that every point at any given day has something different to appreciate about it. It goes on to say, "hill and vale, tree and flow'r, sun and moon and stars of light," but just a reminder that there's something different to appreciate in the created order at every point on the clock as it rolls around each day.

Then the third stanza moves to a slightly different thought — "For the joy of ear and eye, for the heart and mind's delight." And by the way, there's another part of the stanza that's been changed. I think the original was "brain's delight" and so the much less blunt and slightly more aesthetically pleasing, "mind's delight" has been inserted. "For the heart and mind's delight, for the mystic harmony linking sense to sound and sight." And so now the things that are appreciated by our senses, especially our eyes and our ears and then the linkage between our mental reflection on those things and those senses — we're asked to mediate on that. And you know only if you have a friendship with a person for whom those things have been sundered can you perhaps fully appreciate that. I think so many of us have those gifts and don't ever think about how precious they are until we have a friend who's never seen a flower open, who's never seen a bird sitting on the branch perched feeding her young.

Dr. Thomas: I had a friend, and he still is a friend although he's four thousand miles away now — he's a deacon in a church that I was introduced to after I was converted and he has a ministry to the deaf. He is himself totally deaf but he lip reads and he lip read phenomenally well. But I remember having a conversation with him one time about my love for music and he asked me to explain what it meant to me to listen to music. He could lip read but musical sounds and the combination of sounds was something that he could not put together.

Dr. Duncan: Well, with that Derek, we should listen to this song and join in as you hear it sung — "For the Beauty of the Earth."

For the beauty of the earth, For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to thee we raise This our grateful hymn of praise.

For the beauty of each hour Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower, Sun and moon and stars of light,
Lord of all, to thee we raise This our grateful hymn of praise.

For the joy of human love, Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above, Pleasures pure and undefiled,
Lord of all, to thee we raiseThis our grateful hymn of praise.

For each perfect gift of thine, To our race so freely given,
Graces human and divine, Flowers of earth and buds of heaven,
Lord of all, to thee we raise This our grateful hymn of praise.

For thy Church which evermore Lifteth holy hands above,
Offering up on every shore Her pure sacrifice of love,
Lord of all, to thee we raise This our grateful hymn of praise.

Dr. Wymond: This has been "Hymns of the Faith," brought to us by Jackson's First Presbyterian Church.

©2013 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

Subscribe to Biblical Perspectives Magazine
BPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like BPM itself, subscriptions are free. Click here to subscribe.