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William Cullen Bryant, America’s first great poet, was also a hymn-writer. Although he did not devote much of his thought and genius to sacred lyrics, he wrote at least two splendid hymns that merit a place in every hymn collection. The one, “Thou, whose unmeasured temple stands,” is a church dedication hymn of rare beauty; the other, “Look from Thy sphere of endless day,” is unquestionably one of the finest home mission hymns ever written.

Born at Cummington, Mass., November 3, 1794, he was educated at Williams College to be a lawyer. It was his writing of “Thanatopsis” as a boy of seventeen years that gave the first notice to the world that America had produced a great poet.

It is said that when the lines of “Thanatopsis” were submitted to Richard H. Dana, editor of the “North American Review,” he was skeptical.

“No one on this side of the Atlantic,” he declared, “is capable of writing such verses.”

Bryant was brought up in a typical New England Puritan home. Family worship and strict attendance at public worship was the rule in the Bryant household. Every little while the children of the community would also gather in the district schoolhouse, where they would be examined in the Catechism by the parish minister, a venerable man who was loved by old and young alike.

While yet a little child Bryant began to pray that he 368 might receive the gift of writing poetry. No doubt he had been influenced to a large degree in this desire by the fact that his father was a lover of verse and possessed a splendid library of the great English poets. The youthful Bryant was taught to memorize the noble hymns of Isaac Watts, and when he was only five years old he would stand on a chair and recite them to imaginary audiences.

Early in life Bryant came under the influence of the Unitarian doctrines which were then sweeping through New England as a reaction against the stern, harsh teachings of Puritanism. When he was only twenty-six years old he was invited to contribute to a volume of hymns then in course of preparation by the Unitarians. He responded by writing five hymns. Six years later he wrote “Thou, whose unmeasured temple stands” for the dedication of the Second Unitarian Church of New York City. He usually attended the First Congregational Unitarian Church of that city.

About thirty years later, however, when Bryant was sixty-four years old, a profound change occurred in his religious convictions. During a trip abroad his wife became critically ill in Naples. At first her life was despaired of, but when she finally was on the road to recovery Bryant sent for a warm friend of the family, Rev. R. C. Waterston, who was in Naples at the time. The latter tells of his meeting with the aged poet in the following words:

“On the following day, the weather being delightful, we walked in the royal park or garden overlooking the Bay of Naples. Never can I forget the beautiful spirit that breathed through every word he (Bryant) uttered, the reverent love, the confiding trust, the aspiring hope, the rooted faith.... He said that he had never united himself with the Church, which, with his present feeling, he would most 369 gladly do. He then asked if it would be agreeable to me to come to his room on the morrow and administer the communion, adding that, as he had never been baptized, he desired that ordinance at the same time.

“The day following was the Sabbath, and a most heavenly day. In fulfilment of his wishes, in his own quiet room, a company of seven persons celebrated together the Lord’s Supper.... Previous to the breaking of bread, William Cullen Bryant was baptized. With snow-white head and flowing beard, he stood like one of the ancient prophets, and perhaps never, since the days of the apostles, has a truer disciple professed allegiance to the divine Master.”

Twenty years after this experience, in the last year of the poet’s life, he made some contributions to the Methodist Episcopal hymnal. A revision of one of the hymns which he had written in 1820 for the Unitarian hymnal reveals his changed attitude toward the Lord Jesus Christ. For the Unitarian book he had written:

Deem not that they are blest alone

Whose days a peaceful tenor keep;

The God who loves our race has shown

A blessing for the eyes that weep.

For the Methodist hymn-book he changed the third line to read:

The anointed Son of God makes known.

The hymn was sung in its changed form at the poet’s funeral, as well as another beautiful hymn entitled “The Star of Bethlehem,” written in 1875 for the semi-centennial of the Church of the Messiah in Boston.

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