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Critics will forever disagree on the subject of the relative merits of great hymns. Bishop George Washington Doane’s fine hymn, “Thou art the Way; to Thee alone,” has been declared by some to be the foremost of all hymns written by American authors. Dr. Breed, on the other hand, declares that it is “by no means the equal” of other hymns by Doane. Another authority observes that it “rather stiffly and mechanically paraphrases” the passage on which it is founded, while Edward S. Ninde rejects this conclusion by contending that although “metrical expositions of Scriptures are apt to be stilted and spiritless ... this one is a success.”

Ninde, however, does not agree that it is “the first of American hymns,” reserving this honor, as do most critics, for Ray Palmer’s “My faith looks up to Thee.”

Bishop Doane was born in Trenton, N. J., May 27, 1799. This was the year in which George Washington died. The future hymn-writer was named after the great patriot. At the age of nineteen he was graduated by Union College with the highest scholastic honors. After teaching for a season, he became pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church, Boston, Mass., the church afterwards made famous by Phillips Brooks.

When only thirty-three years old he was elevated to the bishopric of New Jersey, which position he held until his death in 1859. By this time he had already won fame as a hymn-writer. It was in 1824, at the age of twenty-five, that 376 Doane published a little volume of lyrics entitled “Songs by the Way.” One of the hymns in this collection was the beautiful paraphrase, “Thou art the Way; to Thee alone.” This hymn alone would have been sufficient to have perpetuated the name of the young poet, but there was another gem in the same collection that will always be treasured by those who love Christian song. It is the exquisite evening hymn:

Softly now the light of day

Fades upon my sight away;

Free from care, from labor free,

Lord, I would commune with Thee.

Among the many achievements of this versatile bishop was the founding of Saint Mary’s Hall, a school for young women, at Burlington, N. J. Doane lies buried in the neighboring churchyard, and it is said that the students on every Wednesday evening at chapel services sing “Softly now the light of day” as a memorial tribute to the founder of the institution.

Both of these hymns were quickly recognized as possessing unusual merit, and almost immediately found their way into Christian hymn-books. Today there is scarcely a hymnal published in the English language that does not contain them.

But Bishop Doane’s fame does not rest on these two hymns alone. He was destined to write a third one, equally great but of a very different character from the other two. It is the stirring missionary hymn:

Fling out the banner! let it float

Skyward and seaward, high and wide;

The sun that lights its shining folds,

The cross, on which the Saviour died.


It was written in 1848 in response to a request from the young women of St. Mary’s Hall for a hymn to be used at a flag-raising. The third stanza is one of rare beauty:

Fling out the banner! heathen lands

Shall see from far the glorious sight,

And nations, crowding to be born,

Baptize their spirits in its light.

The hymn, as may be surmised, is based on the passage from the Psaltery: “Thou hast given a banner to them that fear thee, that it may be displayed because of the truth.”

Bishop Doane was a zealous advocate of missions. It was during his childhood that the modern missionary movement had its inception and swept like a tidal wave over the Christian world. “Fling out the banner” is a reflection of the remarkable enthusiasm that filled his own soul and that revealed itself in his aggressive missionary leadership. Indeed, he became known in his own Church as “the missionary bishop of America.”

A son, William C. Doane, also became one of the most distinguished bishops of the Episcopal Church. Writing of his father’s rare gifts as a hymnist, he declares that his heart was “full of song. It oozed out in his conversation, in his sermons, in everything that he did. Sometimes in a steamboat, often when the back of a letter was his only paper, the sweetest things came.”

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