Thy kingdom come!- on bended knee
Frederick Lucian Hosmer (1840-1929)
Tune: IRISH: Sacred Hymns and Poems (1749 Dublin)
Thy kingdom come!- on bended knee
the passing ages pray;
and faithful souls have yearned to see
on earth that kingdom's day.
But the slow watches of the night
not less to God belong;
and for the everlasting right
the silent stars are strong.
And lo, already on the hills
the flags of dawn appear;
gird up your loins, ye prophet souls,
proclaim the day is near:
The day in whose clear-shining light
all wrong shall stand revealed,
when justice shall be throned in might,
and every hurt be healed;
When knowledge, hand in hand with peace,
shall walk the earth abroad:-
the day of perfect righteousness,
the promised day of God.
This is a real hymn of Advent. It anchors us in the darkness of waiting, assuring us that the ‘slow watches of the night’ belong to God as much as the coming day. All the imaginative language of the first verses is about the night, with light appearing only as pinpricks of stars, or flags on the horizon, heralding the dawn.
And it was that language of darkness that filled my imagination when I first encountered this hymn as a rather earnest teenager. I knew I had loved it, but until revisiting the text for this reflection, I hadn’t realised how much the images had peopled my own experience of night time.
At the time, I had a 5 mile bus journey from my secondary school back to my home village, which, in winter, was in darkness. Part of it was across a flood plain, ‘The Meadows’, which was at that time unlit and featureless. The lights of the town were behind us, and only darkness lay ahead. You could feel the landscape spreading out on either side. If the water was high, there might be a glint of light to one side or the other. I used to press my face to the bus window to cut out the reflected light, and stare into the darkness.
Later, camping, or walking through the night, I rejoiced in the strong silent stars, and the first glimmer of dawn, like the lofted flags of a friendly host, still hidden below the horizon, except for those first signs.
All those hints of incipient light were pointing not to a triumphal reign, or the conquest of the nations, as so often in our hymnody, but to the prophetic vision of justice and the everlasting right – a vision that gripped me in those teenage years, and has fired my life ever since.
The imaginative language of the first three verses culminates in the proclamation that the day is near – and this section of the hymn ends in a colon, the grammatical equivalent of a breathless pause. The rest of the hymn then forms a long build up, with semi-colons at the end of each verse. The singers in the accompanying YouTube clip accomplish this by bringing in different voices for the verses, to describe ‘the day’ which is to come.
Again the promise is prophetic, not triumphalist. The coming day, heralded by the flags of dawn, will see justice throned; hurts healed.
The final verse starts with an emphasis on a word that we don’t often find in hymns. Knowledge gets a bad press in Christian thinking. It was the great temptation in the Garden of Eden, casting Adam and Eve out into the darkness. The Church has been deeply suspicious of scientific enquiry, or access to learning that might question or challenge traditional views. But the writer of this hymn was living at a time of huge leaps in human understanding of the world, and he places knowledge there, in the broad daylight of God’s promises, walking hand in hand with peace.
The writer, Frederick Lucian Hosmer was an American Unitarian Universalist. His long life spanned the scientific and industrial advances of the late nineteenth century, but also their horrific use in the mechanised carnage of the First World War.
A Harvard graduate, he served churches right across America, from Massachusetts to California, so he would have witnessed the excesses and injustices of western expansion, as well as the intellectual elitism of New England. He was a socialist: his hymn, ‘Forward through the ages’ written as a riposte to ‘Onward Christian soldiers’, to the tune ST GERTRUDE, became the anthem of the Christian Socialist Movement.
He frequently wrote for special occasions, including ‘O prophet souls of all the years’, for the 1893 Parliament of Religions, which was a groundbreaking event, bringing people of the major world religions together as part of the World Fair in Chicago.
‘Thy kingdom come’ was written for ‘commencement’ or the graduating ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist College, Meadville in 1891. Its inspirational and optimistic language is therefore aimed at young people (by the 1890s including women as well as men) as they set out on their lives in ministry, or service. They were the ones standing under the strong silent stars, watching for the flags of dawn, and hearing the stirring proclamation of justice, peace and, above all, knowledge.
Percy Dearmer called this hymn, ‘one of the noblest hymns in the language’. Set in the midst of Advent, it offers us the same stirring call to stand in the dark, and look for the promised day of God.
God of promise, in the darkness of these present days, lift our eyes to the horizon of the future; stir our hearts and inspire our minds with the call of the prophets to enthrone justice, and hold together knowledge and peace. Amen
Performed here by Manchester Cathedral Choir