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Among the more recent hymns that have found their way into the hymn-books of the Christian churches in America, there is none that enjoys such popularity and esteem as Frank Mason North’s hymn, “Where cross the crowded ways of life.” It is a hymn of the highest order, beautiful in thought and unusually tender in expression. It is typical of the trend in modern hymns to emphasize the Church’s mission among the lowly and the fallen.

From beginning to end this hymn is a picture of the modern city with its sins and sorrows and spiritual hunger. We see the city as the meeting place of all races and tongues; we hear the din and noise of selfish striving; we behold the haunts of poverty and sin and wretchedness; we catch a glimpse of the sufferings of helpless childhood, of woman’s secret griefs and man’s ceaseless toil. And all these multitudes are hungering for Christ!

North has, consciously or unconsciously, made a striking distinction between mere social service work, which aims at the alleviation of human need and suffering, and inner mission work, which seeks to help men spiritually as well as physically. “The cup of water” is never to be despised, but when it is given in Christ’s Name it has double value; for it is Christ Himself, after all, that men need, and it is only Christ who can truly satisfy. Social service can never take the place of salvation.

What a beautiful prayer is that contained in the fifth stanza, where the Master is entreated to “tread the city’s 454 streets again!” And then, as a fitting climax to this whole remarkable poem, comes the triumphant thought expressed in the final lines of the coming of the New Jerusalem from above—“the city of our God.”

North was well qualified to write such a hymn. He himself was a child of the city, having been born in America’s greatest metropolis in 1850. His early education, too, was received in New York City and after his graduation from Wesleyan University in 1872 he served several congregations in the city of his birth. In 1892 he was made Corresponding Secretary of the New York City Church Extension and Missionary Society and in 1912 he was elected a Corresponding Secretary of the Methodist Episcopal Board of Foreign Missions. Thus, almost his whole life has been devoted to missionary activities at home and abroad.

It was in 1905, in response to a request from the Methodist hymnal committee, that North wrote his celebrated hymn. He tells the story in the following words:

“My life was for long years, both by personal choice, and official duty, given to the people in all phases of their community life. New York was to me an open book. I spent days and weeks and years in close contact with every phase of the life of the multitudes, and at the morning, noon and evening hours was familiar with the tragedy, as it always seemed to me, of the jostling, moving currents of the life of the people as revealed upon the streets and at great crossings of the avenues; and I have watched them by the hour as they passed, by tens of thousands. This is no more than many another man whose sympathies are with the crowd and with the eager, unsatisfied folk of the world, has done.

“As I recall it, I came to write the hymn itself at the suggestion of Professor C. T. Winchester, who, as a member 455 of the committee on the new hymnal, was struggling with the fact that we have so few modern missionary hymns. He said to me one day, ‘Why do you not write us a missionary hymn?’ I wrote what was in my thought and feeling.... That it has found its way into so many of the modern hymnals and by translation into so many of the other languages, is significant not as to the quality of the hymn itself but as to the fact that it is an expression of the tremendous movement of the soul of the gospel in our times which demands that the follower of Christ must make the interest of the people his own, and must find the heart of the world’s need if he is in any way to represent his Master among men.”

Another lovely hymn by North was written in 1884. The first stanza reads:

Jesus, the calm that fills my breast

No other heart than Thine can give;

This peace unstirred, this joy of rest,

None but Thy loved ones can receive.

The spirit of this hymn reminds us very much of the two classic hymns of Bernard of Clairvaux—“O Jesus, joy of loving hearts” and “Jesus, the very thought of Thee.” The last line quoted above is evidently inspired by a line from the latter hymn.

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