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  • Writer's pictureAll Saints Episcopal Church

Hymn of the Week #3 - "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life"

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

Our summer exploration continues this week with one of the pioneering social gospel hymns, "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life." This hymn has not only served as a model for several other hymns but also represents the "Christian Responsibility" group of hymns in the Hymnal 1982.

Michael Hawn provides valuable insights into the hymn's background.[1] Frank Mason North, an early advocate for ecumenism and various social causes such as women's rights, child labor laws, and workers' rights, played a significant role in its creation. North was also a co-founder of The Institutional and Open Church League and co-author of the Methodist Social Creed, which echoed the principles of the Social Gospel Movement led by Walter Rauschenbusch. The 1908 “Methodist Social Creed”:

“For equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life. For the principles of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions. For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality. For the abolition of child labor. For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safeguard the physical and moral health of the community. . . . For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills. To the toilers of America and to those who by organized effort are seeking to lift the crushing burdens of the poor, and to reduce the hardships and uphold the dignity of labor, this Council sends the greeting of human brotherhood and the pledge of sympathy and of help in a cause which belongs to all who follow Christ.”

Remarkably, this creed's principles remain relevant even today, as they continue to address pressing social issues. Similarly, the hymn "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life" retains its relevance – and seems as if it could be written today.

The story behind the hymn begins with a request from Caleb Winchester, the editor of the 1905 Methodist Hymnal, for Frank North to write a text about city missions. Drawing inspiration from Jesus' words in Matthew 22:9, "Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find," North, with his intimate familiarity with city life, penned "A Prayer for the Multitudes" (the hymn's formal name).

According to the Psalter Hymnal Handbook, this hymn stands as one of the earliest and finest modern "city hymns." It delves into the challenges of urban centers, displaying the insight and compassion of a Christian worker in the city slums. The descriptive phrases used by North, which may have been startling at the turn of the century, remain accurate depictions of today's sprawling cities. The hymn's call to follow in the footsteps of Christ and share the gospel through words and actions remains relevant as we await the fulfillment of the New Jerusalem.[2]

This text served as inspiration for several other texts. Walter Russell Bowie (1882-1969), who served as rector of Richmond’s St. Paul’s Church from 1911 until 1923. In 1909 he penned the words to “O holy city seen of John”, which is found in the Hymnal 1982 at #582/583.

The tune associated with the hymn is known by several titles, but in the Hymnal 1982, it is referred to as "Gardiner" as a tribute to its arranger, William H. Gardiner (1770-1853). Gardiner, primarily a hosiery manufacturer, pursued music as a side endeavor.

During his travels, he became acquainted with the music Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven, which inspired him to popularize some of their more accessible melodies.

This led to the publication of compilations, including "Sacred Melodies" in 1815, where the tune for "Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life" is found. While there are conflicting accounts, with some suggesting Gardiner composed the tune himself and others proposing its basis in a German folk song, the claim that he adapted a melody of Beethoven's for the hymn tune persists.

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