Monday, July 13, 2009

Mary Artemisia Lathbury

Mary Artemisia Lathbury


Miss Lathbury holds a unique place among our American hymn-writers. She was long known as the "Laureate of Chautauqua." It has been given to few poets to have their hymns used by as large and enthusiastic and cultured audiences as have sung the hymns of this gifted woman.

The child of devout Christian parents, she was born in Manchester, New York, in 1841. Her father was a local preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church, and two of her brothers were ordained to the Methodist ministry. She early developed a talent both for composing verses and for drawing, and as a mere girl her favorite pastime was the writing of short poems adorned with original illustrations. But almost from the first the pastime became a part of her religion. One day she seemed to hear a voice saying to her: "Remember, my child, that you have a gift of weaving fancies into verse, and a gift with the pencil of producing visions that come to your heart; consecrate these to me as thoroughly and as definitely as you do your inmost spirit." She was not disobedient to the heavenly call.

As the years passed and her talents matured, Miss Lathbury became widely known as a contributor to periodicals for children and young people. In 1874, Dr. John H. Vincent, who at that time was Secretary of the Methodist Sunday School Union, engaged her as his assistant in the editorial department. Not only did this widen her opportunity for usefulness as a writer for children, but it brought her into close touch with the Chautauqua movement at its very beginning. The Chautauqua idea appealed to her strongly and she gave herself enthusiastically to its promotion. Her poetic gift was at once appreciated, and through the years she was appealed to again and again for hymns to be sung on special occasions. She gladly responded, and it was in this way that her best-known hymns had their origin.

The one written for the Centennial celebration in 1876, with the chorus:

"Arise and shine in youth immortal,

Thy light is come, thy King appears!
Beyond the Century's swinging portal,

Breaks a new dawn—the thousand years!"—

impressed Frances E. Willard as "the most complete utterance of that sublime period," and it was a favorite with the author herself.

Although Chautauqua started out as a Methodist enterprise, under the liberal leadership of Dr. Vincent it soon lost its sectarian character and made its appeal to all Christians alike. Miss Lathbury caught the spirit of her chief, and for the summer of 1881 she wrote her greatly admired hymn on "The Nameless Fold":

"O Shepherd of the Nameless Fold—

The blessed church to be—
Our hearts with love and longing turn
To find their rest in thee!

" 'Thy Kingdom come'—its heavenly walls

Unseen around us rise,
And deep in loving human hearts
Its broad foundation lies."

It was a beautiful prayer for that spirit of Christian unity for which Chautauqua has stood through all the years.

One of her finest poems, meriting a wider use than it has received, especially as a morning carol, is the one which opens with the lines:

"Arise, all souls, arise! the watch is past;
A glory breaks above the cloud at last.
There comes a rushing, mighty wind again!
The breath of God is still the life of men;
The day ascending fills the waiting skies,
All souls, arise!"

The two best-known hymns by Miss Lath- bury, "Break Thou the bread of life," and "Day is dying in the west," were given to Dr. Vincent in 1887. The former of these, a little gem, she called a "Study Song," and it has always been a rare favorite. When we remember that it was intended primarily for the hungry students of the Word on the shore of Lake Chautauqua, we feel the appropriateness of the allusion to the breaking and blessing of the loaves "beside the sea" of Galilee. The hymn is loved both at home and abroad. Dr. G. Campbell Morgan always asked the congregation to sing it at the weekly meetings of his great Bible class in London, just before he began the exposition of the lesson:

"Break thou the Bread of life,

Dear Lord, to me,
As thou didst break the loaves

Beside the sea;
Beyond the sacred page

I seek thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for thee,

O living Word!

"Bless thou the truth, dear Lord,

To me, to me,
As thou didst bless the bread

By Galilee;
Then shall all bondage cease,

All fetters fall;
And I shall find my peace,

My All-in-All!"

Without doubt the finest hymn that Miss Lath- bury ever wrote, and the one that everywhere has been received with praise, is, "Day is dying in the west." It was written at the request of Dr. Vincent. From the beginning, the vesper hour at Chautauqua, in a peculiar way, has seemed to gather about it the spiritual beauty and uplift of the whole day. But there was no hymn quite suited to the hour till this "poetess and saint," as Dr. Vincent used to call her, made her contribution. Since then this lyric has been sung around the world. Some years after its first appearance, W. Garrett Horder, the well- known English anthologist, chanced to see it in a book recently received from an American friend. Who Miss Lathbury was he had no idea, but his practiced eye immediately recognized in the poem a masterpiece. In the enthusiasm of a genuine discovery, he wrote: "It is one of the finest and most distinctive hymns of modern times. It deserves to rank with 'Lead, Kindly Light,' of Cardinal Newman, for its pic- turesqueness and allusionness, and above all else for this, that devout souls, no matter what their distinctive beliefs, can through it voice their deepest feelings and aspirations." It is sung in many places and by many voices, but to be fully appreciated it must be heard in the great auditorium at Chautauqua, where the people know it and love it as nowhere else, and where the words, pealed out to the matchless melody of Professor Sherwin, to which they were long since wedded, sweep the soul up to the very throne of the eternal God two stanzas. In 1890, in response to the earnest request of many friends, Miss Lathbury added a third and a fourth stanza:

"Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets her evening lamps alight

Through all the sky.
Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of thee!
Heaven and earth are praising thee,

O Lord most high.

"Lord of life, beneath the dome
Of the universe, thy home,
Gather us who seek thy face
To the fold of thy embrace,
For thou art nigh.

"While the deepening shadows fall,
Heart of Love, enfolding all,
Through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil thy face,
Our hearts ascend.

"When forever from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise,
And shadows end."

Miss Lathbury lived in and near New York, where she carried on her literary and artistic work. She died in 1913.

From The story of the American hymn By Edward Summerfield Ninde

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