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  • Writer's pictureAll Saints Episcopal Church

Advent Hymn #1: My Lord, What a Morning


My Lord, what a morning;

My Lord, what a morning;

Oh, my Lord, what a morning,

When the stars begin to fall,

When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the trumpet sound,

To wake the nations underground,

Looking to my God’s right hand,

When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the sinner cry,

To wake the nations underground,

Looking to my God’s right hand,

When the stars begin to fall.

You’ll hear the Christian shout,

To wake the nations underground,

Looking to my God’s right hand,

When the stars begin to fall.

Upon consulting the Merriam-Webster dictionary for the definition of the noun "spiritual," one encounters multiple interpretations. The primary definition refers to "things of a spiritual, ecclesiastical, or religious nature." Additionally, the second definition characterizes it as "a religious song, typically possessing a profoundly emotional quality, that originated especially among Black people in the southern U.S."

Let's dive into the second definition, which, while undoubtedly falling under the category of "things of a spiritual, ecclesiastical, or religious nature," specifically focuses on the concept of a "spiritual" as a musical genre. A “spiritual”, at a basic level is a type of folk song. English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams writes that “folk songs grow out of the needs of the people and that the people find a “fit and perfect” way to satisfy those needs.

However, spirituals emerged from the horrible shadow of slavery. According to Benjamin May, the former president of Morehouse College, "The creation of the spirituals was no accident. It was a creation born of necessity, so that the slave might more adequately adjust himself to the conditions of the new world."

The spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning” is no exception to this narrative, however, its origins are not found in the south, but rather that of free Black people in a “northern city”. Some attribute the text to Richard Allen, the first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in A Collection of Spiritual Songs and Hymns Selected from Various Authors (Philadelphia, 1801). According to Michael Hawn,

Bishop Richard Allen

He (Allen) observed that African Americans in Philadelphia were creating a category of congregational songs beyond those composed by the traditional British hymnodists of the day, especially eighteenth-century hymnwriters John Newton, Isaac Watts, and Charles Wesley. This collection may be the first one to distinguish between hymns and spiritual songs in the African American context. These “spiritual songs”—later spirituals—often employed call-response forms of performance and incorporated refrains.

Allen’s hymn was very different from what we know today. Allen published the hymn in 1801 as “Before the Awful Trumpet Sounds”, and fell into the African American tradition mentioned above. In 1867, another version of the hymn “Stars Begin to Fall”, appeared in Slave Songs of the United States, a compilation of songs collected in South Carolina during the Civil War.

A notable distinction lies in the fact that "Before the Awful Trumpet Sounds" was likely the creation of a single author. In contrast, "Stars Begin to Fall" underwent a transformative process within various communities. According to Hawn, "This process attributes compositional agency to a specific community rather than an individual. Moreover, refrains or segments of the spiritual originating in one community may have undergone similar adaptations in other communities, resulting in variations."

So, how did "My Lord, What a Morning" find its way into our hymnals today? In most hymnals, this hymn is associated with the tune name "Burleigh," a homage to Harry T. Burleigh. Renowned for creating concert versions of African American spirituals, including "My Lord," Burleigh's arrangement served as the basis for the version found in contemporary hymnals.

(Aside: Harry Burleigh was no stranger to the Episcopal Church - he was the soloist at St. George's Church, New York City, from 1894-1946 - the deciding vote to hire him was none other than J.P. Morgan).

According to Hymnary.Org, this hymn is cataloged in 43 hymnals, spanning from the African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal to the hymnals used today in many Christian denominations, such as the Episcopal Church’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing II”

Now, why consider "My Lord, What a Morning" an Advent hymn? While it likely wasn't originally intended as such, its themes resonate with the gospel reading for this upcoming Sunday. The hymn draws its inspiration from a passage in Matthew 24:29-31:

"Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken.

Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other."

Our lectionary appoints Mark 13:24-37 for this First Sunday of Advent in liturgical year B. Given that Matthew and Mark sharing much of the same source material, this passage directly quotes the same apocalyptic text.

Interestingly, certain hymnals present the text as "My Lord, What a Mourning." Given Matthew's use of the word "mourn," a compelling case can be made for this variation. It seems that the interchangeability of "morning" and "mourning" has been, as Carl Daw Jr. describes, like "different sides of the same coin." He notes that those who learned the song without a printed text likely didn't discern the difference, emphasizing the fluidity between the two words in the context of the hymn.

As usual, I owe much to Michael Hawn’s scholarship on this hymn. For more reading, check out his essay here.

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