This page was created by Donal Hegarty.  The last update was by Alisa Clapp-Itnyre .

Sounding Childhood

From Greenland’s icy mountains

Reginald Heber’s “From Greenland’s icy mountains” is a rallying missionary hymn: as Charles Nutter and Wilbur Tillett say of it, “There are many missionary hymns, but this is universally known at the missionary hymn (Hymns and Hymn Writers 343) and Robert Guy McCutchan wishes that other hymn-writers “had been similarly inspired” (Our Hymnody 468). It was found 41% of all children’s hymn books I studied as well.  In 1819, Heber was asked to write a hymn for his father-in-law, the Vicar of Wrexham, who was to preach at a meeting of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel of Foreign Parts; Heber wrote these four verses in a matter of minutes and they were sung the next day, being published in The Christian Observer (1823).  The tune, “Missionary Hymn,” was written by Lowell Mason especially for the hymn; “Albion Chapel” by Haydn is used in the Juvenile Harmonist, 1843.  In 7’s and 6’s and iambic trimester (8 lines in ABABCDCD), the hymn depicts luscious locations (beyond the title): India’s “coral strand,” Africa’s “sunny fountains,” and “spicy breezes” over Ceylon’s isle.  The problem is that the people of these countries are “vile” and are “heathens” who in their blindness bow “down to wood and stone.”  The smug reply, in the third verse, is for those “lighted/ With wisdom” and “benighted” to rally the “joyful sound” until “earth’s remotest nation/ Has learned Messiah’s name.”  It represents the Christian commitment of the nineteenth century to convert those less “enlightened” and has, for obvious reasons, lost its currency.

More discussion of this hymn can be found in Chapter 5, British Hymn Books for Children.

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