This week's hymn, "God of Grace and God of Glory," is a familiar tune among modern churchgoers. It has gained widespread popularity, appearing in as many as 148 hymnals, according to Hymnary.org. This powerful hymn serves as a profound social gospel statement, allowing us to delve into the life and work of Henry Emerson Fosdick, the renowned pastor of Riverside Church in New York City.
Henry Emerson Fosdick, born in 1878 in Buffalo, New York, embarked on his educational journey at Colgate University and later attended Union Theological Seminary. After his theological training, he was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1903. The following year, Fosdick received a call to serve at First Baptist Church in Montclair, New Jersey, where he dedicated his efforts until 1915.
In 1918, Fosdick's ministerial journey led him to First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York. It was during his tenure there that he boldly embraced a modernist perspective, openly challenging the prevailing Fundamentalist movement that held sway within the Presbyterian Church in the USA. This stance positioned him as a vocal advocate for progressive theological ideas.
In 1923, Henry Emerson Fosdick faced inquiries into his beliefs by both the General Assembly and the New York Presbytery, prompting him to resign from his position at First Presbyterian Church. However, his departure was swiftly followed by a new calling as the Pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church. Fosdick held reservations about the opulent nature of the church's Park Avenue location and agreed to assume the role of pastor only under the condition that the congregation relocate.
A new site was selected on Riverside Drive, offering a view of less "swanky" Harlem. With the move, the church underwent a transformation and came to be known as the Riverside Church. Carlton Young provides further insights into this transition,
“Fosdick’s stirring radio sermons, books, and public pronouncements established Riverside as a forum for the critique of the same wealth and privilege whose gifts had made possible the building of the church. Under his leadership Riverside Church was interdenominational, interracial, without a creed, and, astonishingly for Baptists, required no specific mode of baptism. At the center of Fosdick’s ministry was urban social ministry.”
"God of Grace" was composed specifically for the inaugural ceremony of the new Riverside Church in 1930. The construction of this grand church, which took place during the challenging times of the Great Depression, was made possible by a generous $5 million donation from John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Henry Emerson Fosdick's strong commitment to advocating for the less fortunate is evident throughout the hymn. His words resonate with a message of social justice and compassion. Michael Hawn provides further insights into the hymn and its significance,
“The language of the hymn is ultimately that of petition. “Grant us wisdom, grant us courage” concludes each stanza with the effect of a refrain. A petition begins stanza three with “Cure thy children’s warring madness,/ bend our pride to thy control.” The final stanza, equally prophetic, begins with “Save us from weak resignation/ to the evils we deplore.”
The original text of "God of Grace" was initially sung to the tune known as "Angels from the realms of glory," specifically REGENT SQUARE. However, in the 1935 Methodist Hymnal, it was paired with a different tune, CWM RHONDDA, which has become the most widely recognized and associated melody for the hymn. Interestingly, Fosdick himself did not prefer this pairing and expressed a preference for REGENT SQUARE.
CWM RHONDDA, composed by Welshman John Hughes (1873-1932) in 1907, takes its name from the Welsh term for the Rhondda Valley. While not an ancient tune, it has become well-known over time. In the Hymnal 1982, this melody is also used for another text by William Williams, namely "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah." Despite not having formal musical training, John Hughes was actively involved in the Salem Baptist Church in Pontypridd, Wales, where he served as a deacon and singer.
In the Hymnal 1982, there is an alternative setting for "God of Grace" found at #595, utilizing the tune MANNHEIM. This particular melody was compiled by Friedrich Filitz in 1847 and harmonized by Lowell Mason. MANNHEIM is a robust and sturdy tune, characterized by its solid structure. It offers a different musical quality compared to the more vibrant and energetic CWM RHONDDA, which might align more closely with Henry Fosdick's preferences.