Today’s Word from Trinity Keyboardist Sheila Weidendorf…
The baptismal hymn, Wash, O God, Our Sons and Daughters*, comes to the modern hymnody from 18th century New England. William Billings—America’s first and foremost choral composer—published a new collection of works in his 1770 volume, The New England Psalm Singer. Through Billings and his followers and students came a whole new movement of sacred singing, which came to include shape note singing (where note shapes denoted pitch) and the Sacred Harp singing movement–rising out of the publication in 1844 of The Sacred Harp by Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King.
Sacred Harp singing was intended as music for shared time among the faithful—not as performance music. It was (IS!) traditionally four-part harmony, sung a cappella, with the melody historically given to the tenor line, and harmonic emphasis on open fourths and fifths, giving it a uniquely plaintiff “Americana” sound.
Whereas this American sacred music form was born in the meetings of New England, it eventually moved to the American south where it persists to this day, in addition to its “modernization” and inclusion in the broader American hymnody.
Wash, Wash O God, our sons and daughters,
where your cleansing waters flow.
Number them among your people;
bless as Christ blessed long ago.
Weave them garments bright and sparkling;
compass them with love and light.
Fill, anoint them; send your Spirit,
holy dove and heart’s delight.
We who bring them long for nurture;
by your milk may we be fed.
Let us join your feast, partaking
cup of blessing, living bread.
God, renew us, guide our footsteps;
free from sin and all its snares,
one with Christ in living, dying,
by your Spirit, children, heirs.
Oh, how deep your holy wisdom!
Unimagined, all your ways!
To your name be glory, honor!
With our lives we worship, praise!
We your people stand before you,
waterwashed and Spirit-born.
By your grace, our lives we offer,
Recreate us, God transform.
This hymn is one of renewal by way of bathing in the sacred font of water representative of God’s transformative grace. Of course, purification practices are part and parcel of religions and cultures the world over and water—along with fire and smoke—is among the most common elements used in such rituals. Not surprising, given that water is mostly wherever WE are, and is absolutely necessary for life—even more than food. It is a unique gift (think of how precious are the rains when they come in time to quash the devastation of wildfires) and among the most common of elements in our modern life (and how terrible the impact upon those with no clean or readily-available water, sadly, still not uncommon in many places today). No water = no life. How apt, then, that water should be symbolic of spiritual renewal in the Christian rite of baptism!
Wash O God is also uniquely American in its egalitarian language….Partaking in the Grace of God the believer joins the community of the faithful, cleansed of sin by the holy waters and now empowered by that grace to do as Christ did, to be one in word and deed in both life and death, accepting the “deep holy wisdom” of God. In the washing of the holy waters, the believer is first cleansed of spiritual obstacle, then empowered and recreated in the new “bright and sparkling” garment of Christ.
Click HERE to listen to Sheila’s version of this beautiful song.
*Music from The Sacred Harp, pub. 1844, Philadelphia
Text by Ruth Duck, b. 1947