• Leigh Gerstenberger

More Than A Poem, More Than A Hymn

Updated: Apr 4, 2021




One of my fondest childhood memories is singing in the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Mt. Lebanon, PA a suburb south of Pittsburgh. As I reflect on that experience, one of the reasons it brought me such joy was that my best friend Pete was also in the choir. The Wednesday evening and Saturday morning rehearsals along with the services on Sunday gave us plenty of “hang out time”, affording us the opportunity to get into a fair amount of mischief…but more on that at a later date!


Over the years as the routineness of the liturgy and the calisthenics of the incessant standing, kneeling and sitting began to wear on me, I gravitated away from the church of my youth, electing to pursue my faith journey in a variety of non-denominational churches.


During the ensuing 35 years, I failed to realize the indelible impression the prayers, liturgy and hymns had made on my subconscious as a young man. As a result, today, when I have occasion to attend an Episcopal church service, I am swept back in time finding more comfort, meaning and significance in the liturgical form of worship than I ever did in my youth.


I was reminded of this last week when I shared the James Russell Lowell poem, The Present Crisis in this space. Reading through the poem I came upon the following stanza:


Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side.

Some great cause, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight, And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.


I immediately recognized this verse from a hymn I sang frequently in church growing up. After some research I learned that the hymn is taken from select verses of Lowell’s poem The Present Crisis. Over the years, many have identified with the hymn as a powerful anthem of Christian social responsibility.


The poem was written by Lowell during the white heat of antislavery outrage in 1845. Years later the poem’s title served as the inspiration for The CRISIS, the official magazine of the NAACP which has been published continuously since 1910.


While the Episcopal Church eliminated Once to Every Man and Nation from the hymnal when it was revised in 1982 because its theology was considered erroneous, The CRISIS magazine has persisted as do the societal issues the poem and magazine have continued to draw our attention to over the past 156 years.


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