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Once to Every Man and Nation

  • rkurrasch 

James Russell Lowell was one of America’s foremost literary figures. He is known mostly for his volumes of poetry, but in the course of his lifetime he taught at Harvard, served our nation as a diplomat, and was the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

Lowell was a pacifist and an abolitionist and believed that the poet played an important role as prophet and social critic. He specifically opposed the Mexican War because he felt the unjust invasion would enlarge the area of slavery in the new Southwest territory, and in 1845 he published a piece called “The Present Crisis” which addressed the national crisis over slavery; interestingly enough, this 18-stanza poem has continued to have an impact on the civil rights movement today and was frequently quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his speeches.

Some might also recognize portions of “The Present Crisis” as the source of the hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Sadly missing from newer Protestant hymnals, the hymn nonetheless transcends time, speaking to all those occasions when the faith community and others come together to celebrate seminal victories in the struggle for that more perfect and just society, and it appropriately recognizes that there would be no victories without the commitment and courage of those who struggled year by year, decade after decade, to  create the conditions that make such victories possible.

The hymn:

Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses While the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue Of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow Keeping watch above His own.