Many congregations sing Lord, Who Throughout These 40 Days during the season of Lent, unaware of its origin as a children’s hymn. It is one of the few hymns written addressing the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness. (see Matthew 4:1-11.)
Claudia F. Hernaman (1838-1898) wrote more than 150 hymns with the aim of nurturing the faith of children. This text was included in her collection The Child’s Book of Praise (London, 1873). Its five stanzas present Jesus as our moral exemplar, whose suffering and death teach us how to live.
As a teaching tool for children, the text equates the 40 days in the wilderness with the 40 days of Lent. The first two lines in stanzas one through three recount struggles Jesus faced in his wilderness journey: hunger and thirst, temptations. The last two lines of these three stanzas identify lessons children learn from Jesus’ struggles: penitence for sin, perseverance in conquering sin, and discipleship. The last two stanzas form a prayerful petition for Christ’s abiding presence in both life and death. The fifth stanza depicts the Lenten temptations and suffering as a metaphor for life with heaven as our Easter victory.
Today, Hernaman’s text is considered an “adult” hymn, increasingly published in hymnals from the mid-20th century. ST. FLAVIAN is the most popular tune paired with her text. But also consider how a new generation is interpreting this historic hymn with the American folk tune LAND OF REST.
Hymnbooks for children flourished in the Victorian era as a response to society’s emerging concern for their well-being and spiritual growth. Children sang hymns at church school and at home.
Hernaman was one of several hymn writers in the Victorian era who wrote hymns enabling children to learn and sing their faith. Another notable children’s hymn writer was Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) whose Hymns for Little Children (1848) is in its 69th edition and includes All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City, and There is a Green Hill Far Away.
By current standards, these Victorian children’s hymns seem sophisticated in language and theological content. We should not underestimate a child’s ability to learn and understand theological concepts that can be learned through hymns.
Generally, these Victorian texts reveal a God who is loving and cares for the child. However, an earlier hymn writer, Isaac Watts, did not consistently convey this aspect of God to children.
Watts (1674-1748) published Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children in 1715. In his Preface, Watts makes the case for educating children in virtue and religion, believing that verse, rhymes and meter assist a child in learning and retaining Christian truths.
Watts wrote: “This (hymn collection) will be a constant Furniture for the Minds of Children, that they may have something to think upon when alone, and sing to themselves. This may sometimes give their thoughts a divine turn and raise a young meditation.”
The second hymn in his collection is Praise for Creation and Providence, known today as I Sing the Almighty Power of God. This text teaches children of the grandeur and beauty of God’s creation with the assurance of God’s care for them. However, other texts warn children of hell’s fire for the young sinner (Heaven and Hell). Watts admonishes children about the consequences of lying in his hymn Against Lying:
“Today, when choosing hymns for our children, we should consider what Christian truths they will learn from the texts.”
The Lord delights in them that speak
The words of truth; but every liar
Must have his portion in the lake
That burns with brimstone and with fire.
Then let me always watch my lips,
Lest I be struck to death and hell,
Since God a book of reckoning keeps
For every lie that children tell.
Watts and the Victorian hymn writers held different theological beliefs and views of childhood. They were shaped by doctrinal and societal views of their respective eras. To children in the 17th century, Watts conveyed God as a harsh judge keeping a record of every sin. His language easily could make children fearful.
Over several centuries, this view yielded to a kind, loving God. Lord, Who Throughout These 40 Days deals with difficult theological topics of sin, temptation and suffering in a manner as not to frighten a child, but rather to assure the young person of God’s abiding presence in difficult situations. Without using condescending language, Hernaman teaches the children about Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness and how they can share in his experience.
Today, when choosing hymns for our children, we should consider what Christian truths they will learn from the texts. What do we want our children to know of God? How do we want them to relate to God? What spiritual “furniture” do we want in their minds? How we answer those questions will shape the next generation of young believers.
Beverly A. Howard lives in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a retired university music professor, former editor of The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, and member of hymnal committees that prepared Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal and Celebrating Grace: Hymnal for Baptist Worship. She is a collaborating author for the forthcoming hymnology textbook Sing with Understanding: An Introduction to the Theology of Christian Congregational Song with Martin V. Clarke, Geoffrey Moore and C. Michael Hawn.