During 1914 to 1918, the western world was caught up with international conflict – in what we now call World War 1. However, death also passed through army camps and throughout the world in the form of a flu pandemic between 1918 to 1920. Eventually millions more people died of the flu than because of the war.
Perhaps because church activities were decreased, few songs were composed during the years of crisis. In my search for songs from that period, I did not find any which I could recognise. However, there were a few songs from the early 1920’s which remain well-known today. I would like to share them for your encouragement.
I do not know to what extent the English-speaking authors were personally affected by the crises. Britain and the United States were spared from the worst of the war, but were not untouched by the pandemic. Memories of death (including the death of soldiers far from their families) likely propelled these comforting songs into frequent usage, while their God-honouring themes allowed the songs to withstand the test of time and become beloved by Christians across the world.
You are invited to sing the songs aloud as you read through this article, if you find them familiar.
Lead me to Calvary
Authored by Jennie Evelyn Hussey (1921)
This song, frequently sung during Good Friday services, points us to the death of our Lord. For those who need a quick reminder, Gethsemane is the garden where Jesus last prayed before his arrest, while Calvary is the hill where Jesus was crucified.
At a time when churches are closed, Christians are forced to ask themselves, what does it really mean to be Christian? It is not about worship services with moving atmospheres, nor a shared meal with everyone’s favourite dishes. It is not about joining group activities involving music, games, or common interests. Instead, it is about the cross. A follower of Jesus can never forget the cross, for Jesus calls him to deny himself and take up his cross daily. Yes, Jesus suffered, and we too must not think we shall have a life without suffering. But while Jesus suffered in order to save us, we suffer in order to bring glory to our Lord.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Authored by Helen Howarth Lemmel (1922)
Although many people in evangelical circles today only know the chorus, I think the verses are particularly meaningful to us now. On the news, we see death all around the world. People we know are falling sick – some of us might also die because of this disease. Many more people have lost their jobs and are unable to go out to make a living. We might be tempted to fall into despair.
Yet when we consider who Jesus is, we cannot but be reassured that we are safe. God will take care of our needs as long as we are on this earth, and even if we should suffer the loss of all things, we still have Christ. If we believe Him, our souls shall find rest in Him and be found in Him.
Great is Thy faithfulness
Authored by Thomas O. Chisholm (1923)
This author intended for his songs to be more biblical than the contemporary songs of his time by incorporating scripture into the verses, so this well-known hymn was based on Lamentations 3:23,24 amongst other verses. The book of Lamentations is a sombre one, written by Jeremiah as he lived through the downfall of Jerusalem. There are but a few uplifting verses, yet the gloom seems to make the light appear brighter.
This song would provide encouragement to those who, during this crisis, have to live from day to day. It is true, for all of us, that waking up alive every morning is a mercy from our God. Thank God for his lovingkindness in giving us strength for today and hope for tomorrow.
Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son
Translated by Richard Birch Hoyle (1925)
Originally written in French by Edmond Budry in 1904, the English version became well known through regular appearances during Easter services as well as Anglican funeral services.
It is a fitting complement to the song “Lead me to Calvary,” for there is a similar expression in the first line “Thine shall the glory be.” When the pandemic passes, we may expect nations to proudly declare victory over the virus, while proclaiming the glories of humanity. But the church must maintain that it is Jesus’ victory over death which yet deserves attention. Let us therefore continue to rejoice in Jesus’ resurrection every Sunday.
May the mind of Christ my Saviour
Authored by Kate B. Wilkinson (1925)
The last song shared here is one of service. For those who are in essential vocations during the pandemic and economic collapse, may God bless you richly with his grace. As for the rest of us, let us seek opportunities to serve our neighbours, especially those who are of the household of faith. Since we believe it is God who works in us to will and to work for his good pleasure, we ought to labour and entrust the results to God.
Healthcare personnel will not be able to save everyone. Somebody who lost his job may find a new one which pays less. There are also people who have had their dreams for an pleasant retirement crushed. Pastors and church workers might see a different demographic joining livestreamed services and online Bible studies – some formerly active members may become absent, while new faces appear. Understanding that things are in God’s hands will help us put successes and failures in perspective.
It has been about a hundred years since those songs were written. Since then, they have become familiar even in Southeast Asia as the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian denominations introduced them. Most of the five have also been translated into other languages including Chinese and Thai.
The pandemic in 2020 may or may not cause as many deaths as the one a hundred years ago. However, we can learn from our brethren who lived through the crisis of their times and emerged singing praise to God.
Surely history is also being made today, for until now, never have churches sung in worship together while physically apart. New songs will be written, in memory of what truly matters when bands and choirs are taken away. And just as we look forward to the day which we can meet in person again, let us await the day when we would be able to meet our Lord and Saviour.
One thought on “Post Pandemic Poetry: 5 hymns from the years after 1920”
Thanks Timothy for sharing your research and reflections! Well Done. Praise the Lord!