This is a complex lyric – three verses of a complex poem, “Stanzas on Freedom,” written by James Russell Lowell (one of the 19th century American Fireside Poets). It’s not even a terribly good poem – technically, his writing was good, but as Margaret Fuller wrote, “”his verse is stereotyped; his thought sounds no depth, and posterity will not remember him.”
And it’s a complex topic – slavery. What’s worse is that Lowell’s anti-slavery position came largely because his wife wore him down; many of his thoughts about race make my skin crawl; I can’t even bear to repeat it here – if you’re curious, check out his Wikipedia page, under “Beliefs.”
The truth is, I don’t want to dig any deeper into this history and make a justification about why this should or shouldn’t be in our hymnal, or why it should or shouldn’t matter what a person’s belief is and we should honor the art, and what are the lines we draw between sacred and profane. Largely, because, I don’t know if I have the knowledge or the life experience or even the right to say if this is an appropriate and helpful hymn. And I do not want to mess it up.
What I do know is that it’s not a terribly familiar tune, nor is it as intuitive as I’d hoped, so I really struggled to sing it and pay attention to the lyrics all at once. And if I couldn’t manage it, how can our congregations? These are not casual lyrics – there’s something really complex, possibly meaningful and possibly terrible, about them.
All whose boast it is that we come of forebears brave and free,
if there breathe on earth a slave, are we truly free and brave?
If we do not feel the chain when it works another’s pain,
are we not base slaves indeed, slaves unwilling to be freed?
Is true freedom but to break fetters for our own dear sake,
and with leathern hearts forget we owe humankind a debt?
No, true freedom is to share all the chains that others wear,
and, with heart and hand, to be earnest to make others free.
They are slaves who fear to speak for the fallen and the weak;
they are slaves who will not choose hatred, scoffing, and abuse,
rather than in silence shrink from the truth they needs must think.
They are slaves who dare not be in the right with two or three.
Oof. Opinions, comments, history, and perspectives welcome.
Photo courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images – https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14595373847/
Source book page: https://archive.org/stream/historyprogresso09sand/historyprogresso09sand#page/n489/mode/1up,
No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42034844