My Father's World
An old hymn is more than a charming little ditty
My introduction to the hymns of the faith began in a
Presbyterian church setting, singing and then later playing tunes such as
“Jesus Loves Me,” “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” and “For the Beauty of the
Earth.” Another on my list of favorites was “This is My Father’s World,”
written by a Presbyterian minister while he served a church in Lockport, New
The three verses of the hymn were part of Maltbie Davenport Babcock’s (http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/b/a/b/babcock_md.htm) sixteen-stanza poem, written with inspiration from his frequent walks along the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario. He often told his wife, “I’m going out to see my Father’s world;” thus the hymn’s title and repeated first line.
As a hymn sung by children, its words speak to the creative powers of God, who designed a world touched with the sights and sounds of beauty, expressed in phrases such as, “The morning light, the lily white,” “He shines in all that’s fair,” and “All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.”
It is tempting to look at Babcock’s hymn as a charming little ditty, one that speaks to us of a God who is present in the created world, where the songs of the birds become carols and all of creation raises its praise to the heavens. The images of God passing “in the rustling grass” and speaking to us “everywhere” certainly are comforting to both young and old.
It is also tempting to look at the hymn’s call to environmental concerns, considering our responsibility to protect our world so that nature might continue to sing rather than groan. Yet when Franklin Sheppard was selecting verses from the sixteen stanzas of Babcock’s original poem following Babcock’s death, he honored the religious depth of his friend by choosing this third verse for the hymn.
I’d sung these words many times as a child and into young
adulthood, but I didn’t experience the intensity of Babcock’s declaration of
faith until a day towards the end of our two-year training to serve as
Salvation Army officers (administrators and pastors). We’d just completed
twelve weeks of classes on comparative religion, with a special emphasis on cult-like
beliefs and behaviors. Our minds were swirling with the many expressions of
religious faith, as well as the ways the biblical message could be twisted to
manipulate people’s behavior.
Sensing the struggles of the class, our instructor, Captain R. Eugene Pigford, drew our attention to this verse of song. Paraphrasing his words from forty years ago, he told us: “When you grow confused, when you see the destruction caused by overzealous religious beliefs, when the days are dark and you are tempted to lose faith, remember this moment.” And then he climbed up on a chair in the front of the classroom and began to lead us in this verse of song. “This is my Father’s world . . . though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
I have not forgotten that moment in time. Less than a year later, I claimed that assurance as I watched the merciless images emerge from the Jonestown massacre, where nine hundred men, women and children followed the cultish beliefs of Jim Jones, drinking the cyanide-laced Flavor-aid. “Though the wrong seems oft so strong…" I claimed it again and again, as my neighbor was killed by her boyfriend, as the planes hit the towers on September 11 and as I recently stared at the photo of the Syrian father embracing his twin babies, dead from Sarin gas.
As Christians, we do have responsibility to care for the earth, so that when we, like Babcock, go out “to see my Father’s world,” the birds are still able to raise their carols and the lilies in the field can bloom with abandon. We also have responsibility to care for its inhabitants, to seek after peace and to care for our brothers and sisters in need. Yet we sometimes forget that this is indeed our Father’s world, in its creation, its preservation and its governance.
In its eleven doctrinal statements (http://www.salvationarmyusa.org/usn/what-we-believe), The Salvation Army describes the tenets of faith, and explains the essence of God: “We believe there is only one God who is infinitely perfect, the creator, preserver, and governor of all things.”
Like Babcock, we can recognize the person and the presence of God in our world, the God who is described by Chris Tomlin, a twenty-first century hymnist, as “a good, good Father, perfect in all your ways.” The God who walked with Adam in the garden, and the God who was with the young minister as he strode along the Niagara Escarpment, is still the God of today, both good and powerful. This world continues to be our Father’s world, and we can rest in the assurance that “God is the ruler yet.”
A retired Salvation Army officer, Major JoAnn Shade served in Salvation Army congregations and social service programs for more than 35 years, ministered at North Coast Family Foundation, a Christian counseling center in Northeast Ohio and has written extensively about the issues facing women in today’s culture. She is author of WomenVoices: Speaking from the Gospels with Power and other books.