Caroline Maria Noel (1817-1877). Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
1. At the name of Jesus ev'ry knee shall bow, Ev'ry tongue confess him King of glory now. 'Tis the Father's pleasure we should call him Lord, Who from the beginning was the mighty Word.
2. At his voice creation sprang at once to sight, All the angel faces, all the hosts of light, Thrones and dominations, stars upon their way, All the heav'nly orders in their great array.
3. Humbled for a season to receive a name From the lips of sinners unto whom he came, Faithfully he bore it spotless to the last, Brought it back victorious, when from death he passed.
4. In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue All that is not holy, all that is not true; Crown him as your Captain in temptation's hour: Let his will enfold you in its light and pow'r.
5. Christians, this Lord Jesus shall return again, With his Father's glory, with his angel train; For all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow, And our hearts confess him King of glory now.
Valentine's Day, 1957, Salem, Oregon. The St. Olaf Choir was in town. At Willamette University. I was a 9th grader. Lutheran choral music was virtually unknown in the unchurched culture of Oregon. There was a patina of Methodism from Jason Lee and his wife Anna Pittman who had arrived in Salem in 1834 and did mission work, establishing Willamette University along with congregations. The Episcopal church, as I have noted, was well established. But because so many refugees from the Dustbowl era had ended up in Salem to work in the fields and canneries, the Baptist and evangelical churches made up the largest number of church goers in town. They even had given Orgeonians a kind of lilt to their English.
Lutherans were latecomers. My father had accepted a call to a home mission church in Salem in 1954. As a West Coast native, he knew the territory and was well suited to the work. He knew, as many Midwestern pastors who crossed the great divide to serve, did not, that transplanting Midwestern Lutheranism into the West would not work. So his work thrived as the congregation's members doubled and then tripled, attracting non-Lutherans and evangelicals. While he loved his Norwegian heritage, he knew that importing Lutheran hymns had to be done with an eye to what the congregation would tolerate. Although many of our members were transplants from Iowa and North Dakota, their music was more country western than classical. Which I learned to respect. "I see the Bible in a deck of cards."
So the St. Olaf Choir’s visit was a chance to hear the Lutheran choral sound and that repertoire again after three years without it. (Recall, stereo was not really available and recordings of the choirs whether Augsburg or St. Olaf or Pacific Lutheran, were sonically limited even on the hi fi’s of the day.)
So there we were, sitting in the packed concert hall waiting. Suddenly marching onto the stage, stepping onto the the risers came the bass section followed by the rest of the choir singing “At the Name of Jesus.” This was the year before the Service Book and Hymnal would be published. I had never heard the hymn before. (My time with the Episcopal hymnal would begin in a couple of years.)
The strong unison sound of the choir as it appeared thrilled us. Its pure sounds, clean articulation of the words, a special emphasis of Olaf Christiansen, F. Melius’ son and director at the time, were peerless.
Today is Ascension Day. This has been a suggested hymn for the day. It tells the story of Jesus’ life, using the phrase "every knee shall bow" from Philippians, thought to be an early hymn of the church. Christ has emptied himself to become a servant, even unto death, and is now gone up into heaven, highly exalted. At his name every knee shall bow to him and every tongue confess him.
Hearing them sing this great affirmation of the power of Jesus’ Name thrilled me. Even as a young teenager in Oregon where the church seemed fragile, I knew the name of Jesus did not seem to count for much among my peers. The church has not fared well in the West since then. Our congregation closed fifty years after my father had built it up to some 900 members. Fewer and fewer of the children of that first wave of transplants were attracted to the Lutheran Church, if to any Christian work.
Still, Paul is clear. Every tongue one day will confess Jesus is Lord! It was thrilling to believe it then and it still is, but looking around it is not encouraging. The Christian faith, however, is sweeping the Southern Hemisphere, thanks be to God. But who knows what surprises will come from our sheltering in place? Christians are praying people will emerge from their isolation hungry to know Jesus. As he left us for heaven, he told us to tell his story to all the world. If we did that, he would do the rest of the work. Once the word had been heard, he can change hearts and lives. A prayer as I think of the rainy mists on that Valentine's evening so long ago.
Caroline Noel, born into the English upper classes to a clergyman, began writing hymns as a young girl. She became ill in her twenties and remained bedridden for the
rest of her life. She had given up poetry in mid-life, but after her illness, she took up writing again. Most of her works were religious. Her first book of verse, The Name of Jesus and Other Verses for the Sick and Lonely, published in 1861, contained this text. Ralph Vaughan Williams, England’s greatest composer in his time had a great influence on English hymnody. He found Noel's hymn text and set it to this melody in 1931. Vaughan Williams brought English music back from the romantic German styles popular when he was a child to the English folk tune and the English composers like Thomas Tallis.
Cardiff Festival Choir https://youtu.be/m8IiA1PUbmw
Los Angeles First Congregational Church Choir https://youtu.be/dDbPuO6gEMc
University of Redlands Choir