Tuesday, July 27, 2010

O God Our Help in Ages Past

Apart from Come, Holy Ghost at parish missions, some Marian hymns for May and October devotions, and of course Holy God, We Praise Thy Name at Benediction, English-language hymns were not a significant part of growing up Catholic in the 1950s and early 1960s. I first heard O God, Our Help in Ages Past not in a church but watching Ichabod Crane fleeing in terror from the Headless Horseman, fortifying himself by singing that wonderful hymn. I never forgot it and, having it heard and sung it in churches many times since, I have always loved it.

I chose it to open my Mass of Thanksgiving this past Sunday obviously because of its beauty and widespread familiarity - I saw people actually singing in church! - but also because it so accurately expressed my mood of gratitude for blessings past and confident hope for blessings future, which it was my hope to express at Sunday's liturgy. I think the hymn worked very well for that purpose!

Our God, Our Help in Ages Past was composed by Isaac Watts. It paraphrases Psalm 90. and was originally part of The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, published by Watts in 1719. (In his 1738 hymnal, John Wesley changed Watts' "Our God" to "O God"). The hymn tune "St. Anne" was composed by William Croft in 1708, originally intended for a version of Psalm 62 but now universally associated with this hymn.The hymn is often sung at festive occasions in the UK and was famously sung on the doomed warship HMS Prince of Wales at the Sunday service attended by FDR and Winston Churchill at their first meeting in 1941 (at which the "Atlantic Charter" was proclaimed.)

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