English hymnody arose with the Protestant Reformation, when it consisted solely of paraphrases of the Old Testament psalms. Under the example and influence of Isaac Watts in the first half of the 18th century, this tradition gradually gave way to non-psalmic hymns.
Christopher Wordsworth (1807–1885), nephew of famed poet William Wordsworth, was a towering figure in Victorian-era England who contributed greatly to this movement in English hymnody. The scholar and theologian wrote a commentary on the whole Bible while serving as a minister in the Church of England. He also wrote over a hundred hymns and a treatise on hymn writing. In it, he theorized that “the first duty” of a hymn is “to teach sound doctrine and thus to save souls.”
One of Wordsworth’s beautiful hymns is “O Day of Rest and Gladness,” which he wrote to encourage Christian observance of the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day:
O day of rest and gladness,
O day of joy and light,
O balm of care and sadness,
Most beautiful, most bright;
On thee the high and lowly
Through ages joined in tune, Sing, “Holy, holy, holy,”
To the great God triune.
The hymn celebrates the history of the Christian Sabbath and its great benefits for God’s people. Giving devotional attention to a great doctrinal poem can stir our souls even today.
Honored and Superior Day
We classify Wordsworth’s hymn as an “encomium,” a poem or oration that’s designed to elevate the stature of its subject as an object of praise. Ordinarily, the subject of an encomium is a general character type like the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 or a virtue such as love in 1 Corinthians 13. Wordsworth extends his praise to an institution: Sunday observance.
The first duty of a hymn is to teach sound doctrine and thus to save souls.
In exalted style, an encomium lists the praiseworthy attributes and acts of its subject, but it can also include the subject’s ancient and distinguished ancestry, the effects the subject confers on people, and how the subject engenders a desire for emulation and praise. The stanzas of Wordsworth’s hymn exalt the Lord’s Day by following this topical order.
The first stanza (above) is introductory. It begins with four lines of exalted epithets that address the Christian Sabbath directly as though it were a person (a figure of speech called “apostrophe”). Here Sunday is shown to be superior to all other days of the week.
Glorious History, Glorious Future
The second stanza adheres to the convention for encomiums by tracing the ancient and biblical history of Sunday observance. Four parallel “On thee” clauses trace the lineage of Sunday back to creation, resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost:
On thee, at the creation,
The light first had its birth;
On thee, for our salvation,
Christ rose from depths of earth;
On thee, our Lord victorious,
The Spirit sent from heaven;
And thus on thee, most glorious,
A triple light was given.
The third stanza brings Sunday to its status today. Using exalted metaphors, the hymn again elevates Sunday to a place of earthly glory:
Today on weary nations
The heavenly manna falls;
To holy convocations
The silver trumpet calls,
Where gospel light is glowing
With pure and radiant beams,
And living water flowing
With soul-refreshing streams.
The final stanza takes the eschatological turn usual for Christian hymns, as earthly Sundays morph into the eternal rest of heaven:
New graces ever gaining
From this our day of rest,
We reach the rest remaining
To spirits of the blest.
To Holy Ghost be praises,
To Father, and to Son;
The church her voice upraises
To thee, blest Three in One.
Right from the opening line, the hymnic poem is a model of formal discourse. So we’re not surprised when it ends with a liturgical-sounding praise of the Trinity.
Verbal Beauty, Eternal Delight
The verbal beauty and elevated diction of Wordsworth’s poem are magical. Epithets are a major ingredient of the hymn’s poetic texture: “day of rest and gladness,” “the great God triune,” “our Lord victorious,” “the heavenly manna,” and such. The language of every line dazzles, and it invites us to lift our hearts in Godward devotion. The poem also points us back to the Word.
The verbal beauty and elevated diction of Wordsworth’s poem are magical.
The institution of a weekly day of rest began, as the hymn states, “at the creation.” When the Sabbath is first mentioned in Genesis 2:3, we see how God set apart the day as sacred: “So, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
When is the last time you picked up an old hymnal and worked through its poetry line by line? Take time this Lord’s Day to slow down and savor the well-turned phrases and evocative language of a great hymn like Wordsworth’s. You’ll find it to be an experience of rest and gladness, of joy and delight. God may even use the sound doctrine you encounter to save your soul.