Is there anyone that does not know and love the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, Like the wideness of the sea…”? Think of the instances in which you have sung it or when it comes to mind. Think of the contexts in which it is sung and those it interprets.
The six verses actually come from a much longer hymn written by Frederick William Faber, published in 1854. Fr. Faber was born in Yorkshire and received Holy Orders in the Church of England in 1839. At Oxford as an undergraduate he became involved in the Anglo-Catholic preaching of the Oxford Movement and in 1845 he entered the Roman Catholic Church. Many of the hymns Fr. Faber wrote were specifically for a parish setting. He says, “People were anxious to have Catholic hymns of any sort.” As commentators note, Faber’s text soon became popular in the hymnals of many different denominations, and this hymn was even translated into Swedish. Hardly any of the borrowers selected the same stanzas for their use, and it was paired with various tunes. In our 1982 hymnal, #469 and # 470 provide two settings for three verses of the hymn. The first version is set to the tune St Helena which was composed by Calvin Hampton in 1978 expressly for this text.
In his hymns, Fr Faber emulated the simplicity and intense fervor of the Wesleys. This is nowhere more true than in Calvin Hampton’s setting, St Helena, of #469 which expresses musically the metaphor that God’s mercy is as wide as the sea. Musicians understand far better than I its rhythmic rendering of the vast rolling sea through meter and tune to convey the fluid, yet ever-present nature of God’s compassion and mercy. Surely it is this for which we yearn and with which we resonate. Yet in Fr. Faber’s hymn there is a another verse to ponder as a reflection on our tendencies to restrict God’s wide pity:
But we make His love too narrow
By the false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own
And the hymn concludes:
Pining Souls! Come nearer Jesus,
And oh come not doubting thus,
But with faith that trusts more bravely
His huge tenderness for us
If our love were but more simple
We should take him at his word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.
Deirdre Good is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.