Hymn 254 is "From Greenland's icy mountains...". The text is from the great missionary bishop Reginald Heber (part of whose legacy is that he has several namesakes who went on to distinguish themselves in Anglican ministry--more than any other single person I am aware of). He died at the age of 49 (by definition, prematurely, IMO) while Bishop of Calcutta.
I can remember attending a service in an Episcopal parish in the mid-1970s where this was used as the entrance hymn. It was not unfamiliar to me from my Baptist upbringing, so I did not think it strange. Yet, even then, among the avant garde of missiologists, it would have been considered anachronistic at best, and quite possibly racist. Despite being one of the most popular hymns of the nineteenth century, in both Britain and America, it was eliminated from the Hymnal 1982, and one can scarcely imagine a setting in which it would be used today.
From Greenland's icy mountains,From India's coral strand,Where Afric's sunny fountainsRoll down their golden sand.From many an ancient river,From many a palmy plain,They call us to deliverTheir land from error's chain.Can we, whose souls are lightedWith wisdom from on high,Can we to men benightedThe lamp of life deny?Salvation, O salvation!The joyful sound proclaim,Till each remotest nationHas learnt Messiah's name.Waft, waft, ye winds, his story,And you, ye waters, roll,Till, like a sea of glory,It spreads from pole to pole;Till o'er our ransomed natureThe Lamb for sinners slain,Redeemer, King, Creator,In bliss returns to reign.
Why? Because the paradigm that it assumes is now clearly a relic of the past. Both British and American society are rushing headlong into post-Christian secularism, while the gospel has taken hold and is flourishing by "Afric's sunny fountains," among other places. The image of souls in "heathen" lands "calling" missionaries (per the Madeconian who appeared to St Paul in a dream) from "Christian" countries is no longer even plausible, let alone compelling. There are other objections as well, but let's first look at another of the genre, "Remember all the people...":
Remember all the peopleWho live in far off lands,In strange and lonely cities,Or roam the desert sands,Or farm the mountain pastures,Or till the endless plainsWhere children wade through rice-fieldsAnd watch the camel trains.Some work in sultry forestsWhere apes swing to and from,Some fish in mighty rivers,Some hunt across the snow.Remember all God's children,Who yet have never heardThe truth that comes from Jesus,The glory of his word.God bless the men and womenWho serve him oversea;God raise up more to help themTo set the nations free,Till all the distant peopleIn ev'ry foreign placeShall understand his kingdomAnd come into his grace.
These lines are from the pen of Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), a distinguished English priest, liturgist, and advocate for social reform. I don't remember this one from my growing-up years, and I can't say for certain that I have ever been present when it was used in an Episcopal service, though I definitely remember singing it (and chortling while doing so) in the Lutheran congregation in which I sojourned for a while en route to Anglicanism.
The anachronisms present in the Heber text are grossly magnified in this one. It bespeaks a world where it was still possible for something to be exotic, a possibility that information and communication technology has now pretty much done away with. It exemplifies a naive occi-centrism that is now not only very much out of fashion ideologically, but not not even plausible (the "apes swinging to and fro" line makes me laugh still).
So, from whence comes my nostalgia? First off, I enjoy the tunes (Missionary Chant and Far Off Lands, respectively). But I realize that my growing fondness for all-things-Victorian as I advance into my dotage is an anomaly, and not widely shared. Beyond that, however, I miss the unashamed passion for evangelism that is present in these hymns. Strip away all the intimations of cultural imperialism, and what shines through is an honest and fervent conviction of the universality of the gospel. The mysterium fidei is honest-to-God good news for all people in every place and in every time. There is no hint of forcing it on anyone; despite all the attempts at constructing a counter-narrative to the great era of European and American missionary endeavor, we're talking about genuine heroes here. (Reginald Heber lost his life to the exotic climate and micro-fauna of India more than to anything else.) They purveyed the gospel through acts of love and gentle persuasion. And there is certainly no hint of syncretism or universalism of a different sort--no "I'll take my road and you take your road and we'll meet at the peak." That era understood that to know Christ is to live in light and to not know Christ is to live in darkness, and they were passionate about bringing people to know Christ.
In fact, according to the Hymnal 1940, at least, mission is virtually synonymous with evangelism. It's a great thing to dig wells and build schools and make micro-loans to people in developing countries, but all that is an adjunct to mission, not mission itself. Mission is when you are in a position to say to someone, "May I tell you about Jesus?"
We need some new missionary hymns that don't make us laugh (though I think I won't like the tunes nearly so much as the old ones). But perhaps we need to first recover a passion for worldwide evangelism. A little resurrected Christian triumphalism wouldn't be such a bad thing now, would it?