SOME of Christendom’s greatest recent hymns have come to her by means of Reginald Heber, an English cleric who ended his career and life in 1826 as bishop of the Church of England’s missionary diocese of Calcutta in India. (To my mind, the nineteenth century qualifies as recent.) Heber’s hymns, which range from the sublime “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the wondrously-manly “The Son of God goes forth to War,” rightly retain a certain popularity even in the still-more-recent world of the twenty-first century. But not all Hebers are created equal, and a glance at the text of “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” will reveal why many contemporary congregations might consider its message incompatible with their cherished modern values:
From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.
What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.
Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high,
Shall we to men benighted the lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation! The joyful sound proclaim,
Till earth’s remotest nation has learned 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 nature the Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator, in bliss returns to reign.
Should a more moderate congregation wish to retain the hymn while purging it of its most offensive features, it has ample precedent. As far back as 1940, for example, the editors of the Protestant Episcopal Church’s official hymnal elected to remove the second stanza and save the good people of Sri Lanka from choir-stall defamation. If such deletions can bring this splendid hymn to eyes and ears that otherwise would have remained ignorant of it, I have no cause to complain. But it would be sad if the second stanza were to disappear entirely from our memory, for it shows up in a number of interesting places.
In his poem “Jest ‘Fore Christmas,” Eugene Field of “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” fame depicts a bratty youngster well-acquainted with Heber’s exotic descriptions of foreign lands:
Father calls me William, sister calls me Will,
Mother calls me Willie but the fellers call me Bill!
Mighty glad I ain’t a girl—ruther be a boy,
Without them sashes curls an’ things that’s worn by Fauntleroy!
Love to chawnk green apples an’ go swimmin’ in the lake—
Hate to take the castor-ile they give for belly-ache!’
Most all the time, the whole year round, there ain’t no flies on me,
But jest’fore Christmas I’m as good as I kin be!
Got a yeller dog named Sport, sick him on the cat.
First thing she knows she doesn’t know where she is at!
Got a clipper sled, an’ when us kids goes out to slide,’
Long comes the grocery cart, an’ we all hook a ride!
But sometimes when the grocery man is worrited an’ cross,
He reaches at us with his whip, an’ larrups up his hoss,
An’ then I laff an’ holler, “Oh, ye never teched me!”
But jest’fore Christmas I’m as good as I kin be!
Gran’ma says she hopes that when I git to be a man,
I’ll be a missionarer like her oldest brother, Dan,
As was et up by the cannibals that live in Ceylon’s Isle,
Where every prospeck pleases, an’ only man is vile!
But gran’ma she has never been to see a Wild West show,
Nor read the life of Daniel Boone, or else I guess she’d know
That Buff’lo Bill an’ cowboys is good enough for me!
Excep’ jest ‘fore Christmas, when I’m as good as I kin be!
And then old Sport he hangs around, so solemn-like an’ still,
His eyes they seem a-sayin’: “What’s the matter, little Bill?”
The old cat sneaks down off her perch an’ wonders what’s become
Of them two enemies of hern that used to make things hum!
But I am so perlite an’ tend so earnestly to biz,
That mother says to father: “How improved our Willie is!”
But father, havin’ been a boy hisself, suspicions me
When, jest ‘fore Christmas, I’m as good as I kin be!
For Christmas, with its lots an’ lots of candies, cakes an’ toys,
Was made, they say, for proper kids an’ not for naughty boys;
So wash yer face an’ bresh yer hair, an’ mind yer p’s and q’s,
And don’t bust out yer pantaloons, and don’t wear out yer shoes;
Say “Yessum” to the ladies, and “Yessur” to the men,
An’ when they’s company, don’a pass yer plate for pie again;
But, thinkin’ of the things yer’d like to see upon that tree,
Jest ‘fore Christmas be as good as yer kin be!
Another commentator on the second stanza shares William’s dim view on evangelistic work, but his criticism is rather more refined. In 1925, just under a century after Heber’s death, and in Heber’s own city of Calcutta, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi addressed a group of missionaries on this wise:
You, the missionaries, come to India thinking that you come to a land of heathens, of idolaters, of men who do not know God. One of the greatest Christian divines, Bishop Heber, wrote two lines which have always left a sting with me: “Where every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.” I wish he had not written them. My own experience in my travels throughout India has been to the contrary. I have gone from one end of the country to the other, without any prejudice, in a relentless search after Truth, and I am not able to say that here in this fair land, watered by the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, and the Jumna, man is vile. He is not vile. He is as much a seeker of truth as you and I are, possibly more so.
Once published, the hymn was soon reprinted in publication after publication, and minor textual variations, whether by design or error, did not take long to arise. “Sea of glory” sometimes appears as “sun of glory,” “spreads from” sometimes appears as “spread from,” “shall we” sometimes appears as “can we” or “can men,” and “men benighted” sometimes appears as “them benighted” or “those benighted.” The words supplied here agree with those in The Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle of July 1821, which is the earliest date I could find.
But more interesting than imperfect copies of “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” I submit, are works that claim only its inspiration, not its identity. Walter Hamilton’s 1889 anthology of parodies has kindly collected three such specimens for me. One seems to be a reference to British imperial rivalry with Russia; I am not quite scholarly enough on that subject to comment in detail. Another, by Edith Nesbit (authoress of The Book of Dragons, a favourite of my younger days,) condemns imposing western civilization on peoples whose native ways suffice them:
What though the spicy breezes are very nice and dry
And every prospect pleases a missionary eye?
In vain with lavish kindness the Gospel tracts are strewn,
The heathen in his blindness does better left alone.
A happy, soulless creature, he lives his little day;
Directly on conversion, it seems, ensues decay.
Why seek the cheerful heathen to tell him he is vile?
Ah, leave him gay and godless upon his palmy isle.
Nesbit concludes by reminding us that English civilization has suffering enough of its own: “What foreign mission calls you? Your mission work is here!” And while Nesbit opposed England’s spiritual activities overseas, the final parody attacks the Empire’s more physical crimes:
What tho’ from every pulpit we daily Christ proclaim
And bend before the Prince of Peace, and worship in His name,
In vain in adoration we bow before the throne,
These heathens are possessed of lands that we must make our own.
Lest Heber’s shade seek vengeance on me for repeating all this disapproval of his poem and profession, I shall conclude with some more cheerful episodes of his legacy.
The hymn caused harsh debate on its ideological merits, but also caused a lighter contest on its geographical accuracy. The Missionary Review of September 1917 printed the following:
Dr. Augustus C. Thompson, the eminent author of “Moravian Missions,” declares that “From Greenland’s icy mountains… they call us to deliver” is a mere poetic myth, for there are no living creatures on those icy heights to call. And Dan Crawford, suffering from thirst in the heart of the Dark Continent, with nothing to drink but “filthy green stuff,” thinks it would be a great improvement if “Africa’s sunny fountains” rolled down water instead of “golden sands!” Nevertheless, notwithstanding the critics, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” continues to be, as it has been for nearly one hundred years, the master missionary hymn.
And a 1921 article by one Vilhjamur Stefansson needed no “nevertheless” to launch its praise:
We learn from the school books a great deal about the iciness of Greenland, and if we did not learn if from the school books we should learn it from the hymn book’s “From Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand.” But the hymn book is more correct and more careful in its statement than the ordinary geography, for the geography says that Greenland is icy and lets it go at that, but the hymn book specifies “From Greenland’s icy mountains,” and that is exactly correct. The mountains of Greenland are icy and Greenland is mostly icy because it is mostly mountainous.
As we saw with Eugene Field’s poem, the hymn had seeped so deeply into the popular consciousness that it was often quoted without attribution, and many writers employed Heber’s picturesque language as a kind of convenient shorthand to help adorn stories of the regions described. In 1900 a surgeon serving with Canadian troops in the Boer War reported a flood:
Afric’s sunny fountains have been rolling down their golden ‘sands’ to such an unprecedented extent… so muddy that even the horses when thirsty refused to drink.
In 1968, when military technology was slightly more advanced, The Morning Record of Meriden, CT told of some problems this technology brought:
From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” is more than a phrase from an old favorite hymn; it is the source of tons of radioactive snow which is being sent back to the United States in sealed containers… It used to seem a long way from Greenland’s icy mountains to Africa’s coral strand. But the world has grown smaller in recent years, and all nations are more vulnerable.
And in 1969, the Telegraph of London announced an arctic exploration expedition with the words “Greenland’s Icy Mountains will be Climbed and Named.”
Even advertisers found ways to quote the hymn. In 1931 the readers of the Spokane Daily Chronicle were assured that “Greenland’s icy mountains have nothing on the cool drinks” of a cafe in Sprague, WA, and in 1890 a Canadian clothier informed prospective customers that
From Greenland’s icy mountains to India’s coral strand, if done suddenly, might be dangerous, but you can guard against sudden changes, and protect yourself from danger, by being warmly clad in such Underwear and Clothing as we are selling day by day.
While “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains” might seem like the archetypical White Man’s Hymn, it was officially adopted by the black men of Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement and used to open their meetings, albeit without the dreaded second stanza. In 1918 Claude Mallet, the British Counsel in Panama, went so far as to describe it as their “national anthem.” The mass repatriation advocated by Garvey is not terribly popular today, but the movement is not dead, and neither is its love of Heber: witness this video of a “Marcus Garvey Celebration” held in Jamaica in 2011. It seems that contemporary Garveyites are not bothered by calling their African brethren “heathen”; the second stanza is restored. In compensation, however, “their land from error’s chain” becomes “our land from error’s chain.” Africa is not merely a territory to be evangelized: it is a long-lost home to be redeemed.
Finally, I should mention that the hymn made its way onto the big screen in 1982. Starring, produced, and written by Michael Palin, The Missionary mostly deals with a clergyman ministering to the prostitutes of Edwardian London. (It appears to be based on the real-life story of Harold Davidson, a priest killed by a lion in a circus act after being disgraced by allegedly-too-intimate counseling of “fallen women.”) But the film begins when its titular character is returning from a decade-long sojourn in Africa, and it is there that Heber’s words have their moment of cinematic glory.