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New Hymn: “Faith of Our Mothers”

In a previous post I complained about how some traditional hymnody conflates American patriotism with Christian freedom. For example, the militaristic language in “Faith of Our Fathers,” is often interpreted as a defense of American freedom. As a response, I’ve crafted a new text that celebrates women called “Faith of Our Mothers.” Here’s the story of both hymns.

Background

The hymn of “Faith of Our Fathers” was written in 1849 to honor Catholics who were martyred during the formation of the Church of England in 1534. The text tells the story of saints “chained in prisons dark,” urging the faithful to “be true to thee till death.” Consider the third stanza in the original text:

Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to thee:
And through the truth that comes from God
England shall then indeed be free.

The hymn is a distinctly Catholic, but it has gained popularity in American Protestantism by omitting or adapting the verse above. According to hymnary.org, “Faith of Our Fathers” is part of the top 250 hymns most commonly published in modern hymnals. The text is sung to ST. CATHERINE, composed by Henri F. Hemy in 1864.

Interpretation

“Faith of Our Fathers” is about a church schism. The “fathers” in each stanza  specifically refer to Reformation martyrs, but without this context the hymn is open to interpretation.

For example, in the United States, “fathers” are usually interpreted faith leaders, but they could also be political figures, particularly powerful men such as the “founding fathers”. Imagery such as the “dungeon, fire, and sword” plays to militaristic imaginations and strengthens the idea that the hymn tells the story of American independence.  Under this interpretation, the ideals of America are thought of as Christian ethics, made clear by the following Protestant-ized verse:

Faith of or Fathers! We will strive
to win all nations unto thee
through truth that comes from God
the world shall then be truly free.

The concept of “freedom” mentioned here equates a religious struggle with a political one. In other words, Christian belief seen as pillar of American thought.  This is a troubling thought in a country that claims to honor religious freedom and freedom of conscious. Furthermore, vast societal injustices such as racism and poverty make void any claim that the United State (or any government) bears the light of the Gospel.  The call to “to win all nations unto thee” not only militarizes Christianity, but continues a brutal colonial past. Therefore, a song that originally honored lives lost during the Reformation has been transformed into a patriotic hymn about spreading an Americanized Christianity focused on conquest and forming a state religion.

Faith of Our Mothers

While the gospels bear witness to Jesus’s profound commitment to women, the gifts of women still struggle to be celebrated in the Church. Patriotic hymns like “Faith of Our Fathers” tend to reinforce a patriarchal worldview and completely dismiss the real contributions of women of faith.

As an alternative I recently wrote a new text for ST. CATHERINE titled “Faith of Our Mothers,”1 celebrating the role of women in proclaiming the Christian faith.  The hymn is directly inspired by roles women play in the Bible. Reflections on the text follow.

Theological Reflection

Verse 1. Jesus tells a parable about a poor widow who pleads for to a judge for justice from her adversary. The judge was forced to relent because of the widow’s persistence:

Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.

Luke 18:4-5

The cause of justice takes time and effort, but Jesus also provides the hope that unlike the judge, God “will quickly grant justice.”

Women have long persisted in the face of injustice and the arc of history shows that women are often victims of male leaders. Despite this, the Biblical narrative describes powerful female leaders among God’s people. God raised up the prophet Deborah to instruct and guide Barak to an Israelite victory (Judges 4:10), remembered by the Song of Deborah in Judges 5:

To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the triumphs of the Lord, the triumphs of his peasantry in Israel.

Judges 5:11

Judges also tells the story of Jael, a woman who heroically attacked the Canaanite leader Sisera (Judges 5:24-26).

Verse 2. Mary, the mother of Jesus is the central character in the opening of Luke. In her stunning song of praise—the Magnificat—she rejoices in God’s promise of mercy, justice and salvation (Luke 1:46–55). Mary follows after Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who gives a similar song of joy (1 Samuel 2:1–10), and Miriam, a female prophet who danced after God part the Red Sea:

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

Exodus 15:20–21

The prophet Micah remembers Miriam as one of the leaders on the journey Egypt (Micah 6:4) and this story of liberation is recounted throughout the Bible as a sign of God’s deliverance (Hebrews 11:27-29, Acts 7:35-38).

Verse 3. After Christ was crucified, only his closest allies stayed with him, including women who had walked over 60 miles from Galilee:

And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Luke 23:49; cf. Matthew 27:55

In ancient Israel, mourning women were called upon to weep over public tragedies and injustice (Jeremiah 9:17-24). Similarity, the women at the cross wailed over the crucified Jesus (Luke 23:27), who had previously supported and empowered them (Mark 5:25-34; Luke 21:1-4)

A few days later, the crucial message “Christ is risen,” was also entrusted to women:

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

Luke 24:9-11

A profound truth of the gospel story is that women funded Jesus’s ministry (Luke 8:1-3), stood by during his execution and proclaimed his resurrection to disbelieving men.

Verse 4. Women are not always mothers, nor do they need to be (1 Corinthians 7:8-9) and so the opening line of this verse celebrates the “faith of all women”. The New Testament provides examples of several important women in the early church (Acts 9:36–42):

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

Romans 16:1-2

Despite being witnesses to the resurrection, women are still kept from being church leaders. This hymn is an attempt to encourage and amplify the role of women in the Body of Christ.

1 In fairness, there is a twentieth century text called “Faith of Our Mothers,” but it only affirms women as homemakers, which is a narrow vision of the role of women in the church based on Biblical evidence.

 

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