STLT#140, Hail the Glorious Golden City


Holy cow this is a terrible hymn.

Technically, it’s not terrible – the tune is a favorite – Hyfrodol, made fresh by Peter Mayer in 1064, Blue Boat Home (which will get its day next January).  And the lyrics in terms of rhyme and meter are just fine.

But HOLY COW this is a terrible hymn.

Why? I’m glad you asked.

In the history of humankind, there has been a constant battle between Us and Them – we like Us, and we don’t like Them, so we’ll fight hard to make sure Us is protected from Them, even if we have to build walls and cities within those walls to keep Them out. And we have expected our cities to be beacons for both people who are Us and people who want to be Us. We see it played out throughout the Old Testament, with its understanding of the chosen people, and Zion, and the emphasis on building and protecting Jerusalem.  It’s here that we get all of the “shining city on a hill” imagery that my ancestor John Winthrop spouted in 1630 and which then President Ronald Reagan spouted in the 1980s.

And it’s terrible. It’s empire – meant to keep some people in and some out, meant to keep some people free and others enslaved, meant to separate and oppress.

So when I see “hail the glorious golden city” and “gleaming wall” and “banished from its borders” I scream NO. I mean, just look at these lyrics:

Hail the glorious golden city, pictured by the seers of old:
everlasting light shines o’er it, wondrous things of it are told.
Wise and righteous men and women dwell within its gleaming wall;
wrong is banished from its borders, justice reigns supreme o’er all.

We are builders of that city. All our joys and all our groans
help to rear its shining ramparts; all our lives are building-stones.
Whether humble or exalted, all are called to task divine;
all must aid alike to carry forward one sublime design.

And the work that we have builded, oft with bleeding hands and tears,
oft in error, oft in anguish, will not perish with our years:
it will live and shine transfigured in the final reign of right:
it will pass into the splendors of the city of the light.

There are other hymns that talk about building – in particular, I am thinking of 1017, Building a New Way. The difference is that a song like that is about building a path, a journey, a way for us to be better out in the world not just with Them but seeing Them and Us as useless constructs. I like the idea that we work together to build a path toward that kind of vision.

But when the establishing shot of the vision is “glorious golden city”? I’m tapping out.

Just…. no.


  1. Given that the text was written by Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture, I believe that his vision of the meaning of this text was much broader than you believe it to be. “Wrong is banished,” not people. I also note that “all are called” and “oft in error, oft in anguish” to show that his view of ethics and humanity was expansive and inclusive. Perhaps this text bears some more thought.

    Bailey Whiteman
    Music Director
    Washington Ethical Society
    UUA Certified Music Leader


  2. I think you’ve got this one backwards, Kimberley. One reason I love this hymn is because of the inversion of the building metaphor. Adler is saying, “You want to build the perfect dwelling place for humanity? Then forget about walls and borders that keep Us in and Them out. Instead, exclude wrong from your hearts in the way that a wall excludes people from a place.” It spells it right out: we’re not building with stone, but with our lives. We’re not following an architect’s design, but the sublime “design” of a moral life.

    It’s like the Epistle to the Hebrews saying, “Let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually.” Wait, we’re supposed to sacrifice rams and goats now? No. It’s playing upon the religious tradition of sacrifice not in order to prop it up, but to propose prayers of praise instead.

    We do have to be careful, though. I’ve misused this hymn myself, thinking of it too literally and thereby undermining its truer meaning.


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