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O Be Joyful!

O Be Joyful!


Written by Megan E. Thomas

For an older generation who are sometimes called “cradle Episcopalians,” Sunday morning worship was Morning Prayer. And the canticles appointed for the day seem always, in my memory, to have included the Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100). 

O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands! These words are a bucket drawing up from a deep well my memories of Sunday mornings on the choir bench, swinging my patent-leather shod feet, pushing my black beanie to the back of my head. And singing, “O be joyful in the Lord, all ye LANDS, serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a SONG!”  Music of the church is the music of my earliest memories. Consequently, I cannot hear Psalm 100—in any of its various translations—without wanting to sing out, whether as Anglican chant, or to a metrical hymn tune, or one of the great anthems for choirs. Why, every choir director worth their salt composed a setting for Psalm 100, mimeographed it, and taped it to the back cover of the pew hymnals.

So why a shout of joy in this first week of Lent? 

Because today the Episcopal Church remembers the Reverend Paul Cuffee (1757 – 1812), a member of the Shinnecock nation, who ministered to the native communities of eastern Long Island near what is now The Hamptons.  It was a period of early American history when the original inhabitants of southern New England had already been decimated by disease and violence. Those remaining on Long Island were much reduced. (The Rev. Paul Cuffee should not be confused with his close contemporary, the Quaker abolitionist of the same name.)  

“Priest Paul,” as he was sometimes called, stood within a line of New England native clergy inspired by the Great Awakening of the 1740s, including the Reverend Samson Occom and Cuffee’s own grandfather, the Reverend Peter John. Educated and ordained by English colonists, they ministered primarily to indigenous peoples, interceding and advocating for them.

Paul Cuffee was ordained a Congregational minister in 1790 and helped found a church at Hampton Bay. In 1798 the New York Missionary Society commissioned Cuffee as a missionary to eastern Long Island, where he worked among the Shinnecock and Montauk until his death. His grave marker, erected by the New York Missionary Society, can still be found on Shinneock tribal land. It reads,

In memory of the Rev. Paul Cuffee, an Indian of the Shinnecock tribe, who was employed by the Society for the last thirteen years of his life, on the eastern part of Long Island, where he labored with fidelity and success. Humble, pious and indefatigable in testifying the gospel of the grace of God, he finished his course with joy on the 7th of March, 1812, aged 55 years and 3 days.

His grave is surrounded by a modest white fence on the ground where his church once stood and close by the Long Island Rail Road track. Perhaps a fitting resting place for a man who was set apart to be a missionary. (The photo above is by Jeremy Dennis, an artist and member of the Shinnecock tribal nation. Used with permission.)

The Psalm appointed for Paul Cuffee’s feast day is Psalm 100.  Perhaps the church chose the Jubilate because the Missionary Society remembered him as a man who testified to the Good News with joy.  Priest Paul probably said Psalm 100 regularly, likely in the King James Version. Personally, I like to imagine that he taught his congregations to sing it to the hymn tune “Old Hundredth..

All people that on earth do dwell

Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.

Him serve with fear; his praise forth tell.

Come ye before him and rejoice.

O be joyful! Never mind that we are now in the solemn season of Lent. Never mind that my hands are becoming chapped from frequent hand-washing and sanitizing. Never mind that it is Super Tuesday while I write, and this evening’s news is full of political jostling. 

I will be joyful and serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song, sure that the Lord is God, that I am his, a sheep of his pasture, ready to enter into his presence with thanksgiving and speak good of his name, for he is gracious, his mercy is everlasting, and his truth endures generation to generation. 


The Reverend Megan E. Thomas is Priest-in-Charge of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ewing, New Jersey and an attorney in private practice.


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