Christian History Home > Issue 90 > Go, Ye Heralds of Salvation
Go, Ye Heralds of Salvation
The music of missions
What though the spicy breezes blow soft o'er Ceylon's isle,
Though ev'ry 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.
Later Christians have criticized this hymn for having a condescending sense of the superiority of Western culture. Such phrases as "error's chain," "heathen in his blindness," and "men benighted" were, however, the very terms that motivated 19th-century American missionaries. For these young men and women inflamed with a love for God and a concern for the "lost," these hymns expressed noble goals. They also reflected notions of "manifest destiny"—God's plan to fill the earth with democratic ideals and the Christian gospel. God, it seemed, had chosen America to be the bearer of good news to the nations.
"Flow thou to every nation"
Inspired by hymns, sent out into their fields of labor with these words ringing in their ears, missionaries brought music with them. Though preoccupied with translating the Bible into the Burmese language, Adoniram Judson found time to write at least two hymns: "Our Father, God, Who art in Heaven" soon after his release from a Burmese dungeon, and "Come Holy Spirit, Dove Divine" after an especially encouraging year in which nearly 300 Burmese were baptized. His second wife, Sarah Boardman, wrote 20 hymns for the Burmese hymnbook. Over the course of the 19th century, missionaries even began seeing the value of hymns as evangelistic tools in their own right.
In succeeding generations, the missions theme of "Go, ye heralds of salvation . . . to the ends of the Earth" would continue and gain momentum. However, motivated in part by Victorian concerns about societal injustices, the emphasis was more and more on God's call to individuals to go forth and rescue sinners, as in Fanny Crosby's "Rescue the perishing, care for the dying," or Philip Bliss's "Let the lower lights be burning . . . Some poor fainting, struggling seaman, you may rescue, you may save."
But for those early generations of missionaries, the optimistic conviction of God's sovereignty over the nations and his coming reign on earth gave those heralds the confidence to go in the first place:
Blest river of salvation, pursue thy onward way;
Flow thou to every nation, nor in thy riches stay:
Stay not till all the lowly triumphant reach their home;
Stay not till all the holy proclaim, "The Lord is come."
John W. Worst is professor emeritus of music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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