STLT#119, Once to Every Soul and Nation

From the “I never really understood it until now” department comes this hymn.


This is a familiar hymn to me, with its rolling triplets and pulsing, pushing melody. The tune sits for me in the same category as “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miz – strong, defiant, meant to rouse and inspire. (I love the version I just linked to – it features Jean Valjeans from 17 different countries.)

But I don’t think I ever really read the lyrics – although I wonder if the lyrics would have ever seemed so relevant as they do today. These words could be preached from the pulpit or proclaimed at a protest. They should be echoing through the halls of Congress and every state legislature, read to journalists and news chiefs. I mean, this calls us to the moment, to be brave or be cowards (I’m lookin’ at you, Ryan and McConnell), to stand with truth, to decide whether to support greed and manipulation or generosity and truth. Now is the moment to decide.

And what gives me hope is that millions have shown what it looks like when a nation decides to stand up for good – Standing Rock, the Women’s March, the Muslim ban protests, the rogue twitter accounts from governmental science organizations (EPA, NASA, etc.), the media’s willingness to call a lie a lie, the daily calls and letters people are making to members of Congress. It’s happening. And it’s effective.

The moment has come, and people are deciding for the good side.

Once to every soul and nation comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side:
then to stand with truth is noble, when we share its wretched crust;
ere that cause bring fame and profit, and ‘tis prosperous to be just.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
though its portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong.
Then it is the brave one chooses, while the coward stands aside,
till the multitude make virtue of the faith they have denied.

One lyrical note:  again, our hymnal commission has pieced together lyrics for two verses from four verses; as originally written, they do include a fair bit of language that lands in a much more Christian theology. I’ve linked the original lyrics here. Sometimes that piecing together gets awkward and changes the meaning in a way that the hymn becomes toothless. However, they (a) did it much more artfully here than they have elsewhere, and (b) I think the message is stronger the way we have it now.  While this is a lyric written by a Unitarian (James Russell Lowell), you can see the shifts in our own theology from the late 1800s to today.


  1. This hymn has an interesting tension with “Amazing Grace”: Yes, there’s a decisive moment, but if you get it wrong, it’s also never too late to turn around.


  2. Last fall I wrote a sermon that, in part, traces the history of this song. As Sam points out above, the lyrics are adapted from a long poem by James Russell Lowell. (Originally published on December 11, 1845 in the Boston Courier.) Do not trust “Between the Lines” on this one; it gives an incorrect history. The original hymn setting of this poem was written by William Channing Gannett, James Vila Blake, and Frederick Lucian Hosmer in 1880, and included only three verses. The verse with Christ’s bloody feet was added to the hymn by Anglicans.


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