by Jesse Ratcliffe
God’s great goodness e’er endureth,
Deep his wisdom passing thought:
Splendor, light, and life attend him,
Beauty springeth out of nought …
Most Episcopalians will state that the three hymns that they most identify with the denomination are Lift High the Cross, I Sing A Song of the Saints of God, and All My Hope on God is Founded. The latter is the perfect marriage of sublime melody and glorious text.
The text to this squarely Anglican hymn was originally composed in 1680 by the Calvinist theologian and hymn poet Joachim Neander (1650-1680) – author of the texts to Praise to the Lord, the Almighty and He is Risen, He is Risen! The original German was paraphrased into English prose, with some embellishment, in 1899 by Poet Laureate Robert Bridges. In 1930 English composer Herbert Howells was contacted by Dr. Thomas Percival Fielden, the director of music at Charterhouse School in Surrey, to set the text to music. “Dr. Howells recalls that on receiving the request [in 1930], he wrote the entire tune while still at the breakfast table where he had been opening the mail.”
Herbert Howells is regarded as one of the finest British composers of the 20th century, with the bulk of his compositions focused on Anglican worship. He was the son of a multi-talented father who not only was a church organist but also a plumber, painter, decorator, and builder. In 1910, and at the age of eighteen, he attended the first performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia of the Theme of Thomas Tallis and was profoundly inspired. Howells moved to London to study at the Royal College of Music, where his teachers included Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry, and Charles Wood.
In September 1935, Howells' nine-year-old son Michael contracted polio during a family holiday, dying in London three days later. Howells was deeply affected and continued to commemorate the event until the end of his life. At the suggestion of his daughter Ursula, he sought to channel his grief into music. He poured his soul into several orchestral, instrumental, and choral works. At his request, the tune name he originally composed for the Neander and Bridges text was shifted from A Hymntune for Charterhouse to Michael.
As post-Easter people, we know the story from birth to life to death to resurrection – there’s not a “gotcha” moment as we negotiate the seasons from Advent to Easter. Raymond Glover, editor of the Companion to the 1982 Hymnal remarks, “The matching of MICHAEL with the Bridges text, [... allows] the worshiper is enabled to articulate a faith in a very compelling way.” As we reflect on the last four months’ worth of liturgical seasons, I hope that you find that the last verse of this hymn a perfect reflection of our perspective:
Still from earth to God eternal
Sacrifice of praise be done,
High above all praises praising
For the gift of Christ, his son.
Christ doth call us one and all:
Ye who follow shall not fall.