Music Notes | All Saints’ Day

Eric Mellenbruch
Associate Director of Music
and Organist

William Walsham How was a Church of England priest and later bishop in the East End of London, where he became known for his work among the poor in the 1880s. He published a Commentary on the Gospels, a manual of preparation for Holy Communion, sermons, and other writings, but he is best known today for the hymns he wrote, of which five [52, 252, 254, 287, 632] are found in the Hymnal 1982.

By far the best known of these is 287, ‘For all the saints, who from their labors rest’, his entry for All Saints’ Day in his Hymns for Saints’ Days… (1864). It was first included in the Hymnal of the Episcopal Church in 1871; its original third, fourth, and fifth stanzas, treating the Apostles, Evangelists, and Martyrs, respectively, were printed before it as a separate hymn, before being dropped in the 1892 Hymnal. Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the tune ‘Sine Nomine’ for this hymn’s appearance in the 1906 English Hymnal (of which he was the music editor), though it was not picked up in the 1918 music edition of the 1916 Episcopal Hymnal and was only introduced in the next edition (1940). Vaughan Williams’s music eclipsed Barnby’s tune ‘Sarum’ in quality and popularity and is now the only tune to which ‘For all the saints’ is sung. Its marchlike style suits the militaristic language of the hymn (Christ is Captain; we are soldiers, and the saints warriors who fought well and won, in warfare), which is much less used today than formerly but is a well-developed (and sadly not much less relevant than ever) symbolic system that can still describe robustly the struggle against harmful and evil forces which serious followers of Christ will face in themselves and the world around them. (It should also be noted, by way of counterbalance, that light is another major symbol in How’s text, that the Church is not only called an army but of course is a communion and fellowship, and that in one of the stanzas long since omitted, the Evangelists’ ‘pure word, like fourfold streams’ made ‘the garden of the Lord…fair and fruitful’.)

The veneration of the saints was a contentious issue in the Protestant Reformation and has remained so, to varying degrees, ever since in the daughter churches of that Reformation. This is no less so today, when the Episcopal Church has in recent years struggled to articulate or to agree on principles for official recognition of the blessed ones. Today’s Prayer Book and Hymnal, however, offer, if not an entirely unified and codified theology of the saints, then at least many texts (a number of hymns, and many of the forms of Prayers of the People at the Eucharist, prayers at the Burial service, and Collects and Prefaces for saints’ days) for contemplation and celebration of the heroes of our faith, their ongoing role in the life of the Church, and the hope, reward, and Lord to which their lives point us. ‘For all the saints’ has a beloved place among them.

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