Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmony of liberty; let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.
I still remember the first time I sang this hymn. I was in my first year at Vanderbilt Divinity School and it was in a chapel service. I recall thinking that the words were so incredibly eloquent about faith lived and the messy realities of life. At first, I did not realize that it was a patriotic song. And I am embarrassed to admit that it took another year or two for me to learn its storied history.
Originally written as a poem by Principal James Weldon Johnson in 1900, its first performance was carried by the voices of 500 school children. It was not set to music for another five years, by Johnson’s own brother, John. And in 1919 it was adopted by the NAACP as the Black National Anthem. Over the years it has been performed by countless artists and has been included in the last two of our Presbyterian hymnals.
In Divinity School, the tune enveloped me. Once I moved into the church world professionally, I gained a new appreciation for the importance of this hymn.
What I love about it is that it cuts through pretty rhetoric to speak of how hope is born of struggle. This is certainly the reality of faith, but it is also the reality of our country. Though my life has been quite different than that of the writers, the words have always spoken deeply to my own broken heart. And its pressing melody pushes me to courage for the battles that continue to rage around us.
So, on this Independence Day, as we give thanks for the very best of our ideals, for those who have sought after them, those who have died for them, and for all of us brave enough to pursue them in spite of everything working against them – may this hymn make all of us brave in the face of all that would oppose freedom, justice, and a better tomorrow.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died; yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over the way that with tears has been watered, we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered; out from the gloomy past, till we now stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who hast brought us thus far on the way; thou who hast by thy might, let us into the light, keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee. Lest our hearts, drunk with he wine of the world we forget thee. Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.