“Jerusalem”

May 18, 2009 | 25 comments
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One of my favorite hymns is not in the hymn book. No, it’s not “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” although that is one of my favorites as well. Rather, I am talking about the hymn “Jerusalem,” one of the great anthems of the Church of England when it gets low-churchy enough to sing hymns rather than letting the chior do all the work. The words are taken from a poem by William Blake:

Jerusalem
(From Milton)

by William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

There are any number of reasons that I love this hymn. Blake is a poet that it is difficult for a Mormon not to love, with his yearning for prophecy. The music to which this is generally set is the sort of piece that does justice to a big, powerful church organ. It appeals to my Anglo-philia. It even provided a title to a great movie on running and religion.

Ultimately, however, I think that I love this hymn because it captures a tripartite sensibility that maps powerfully on to my Mormonism. First, there is the yearning for Zion, the new Jerusalem as against a fallen world — “these dark Satanic Mills.” Second, there is the call to strenuous action to build up Zion:

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

This is good “The world has need of willing men who wear the workers’ seal” stuff, but set within better verse. There is something about the stressed “Bring me my” that create an urgency, but in place of the “workers’ seal” — which frankly grabs at a bit of class identity that I’m not all that enthused about — we get a series of images that make the struggle seem more heroic, even Homeric.

Finally, and most powerfully, these images center around a place. The divine narrative of Christ’s incarnation and the hoped for New Jerusalem are transposed onto “England’s pastures.”  My own religious geography centers on plains, sage brush, promised valleys, and the mountain of the Lord’s house in the tops of the mountains.  Still there is some part of me that just “gets” Blake’s desire to inscribe the cosmic narrative onto his native place at a deep aesthetic and spiritual level.

I wonder, however, if my own spirituality of place is less about Mormonism than about the accidents of my own biography.  Growing up in Salt Lake City with Mormon history geeks for parents the images of pioneers, crickets, temple builders, and a benign and wise Brigham Young at the head of it all surface as some of the earliest images in my religious memory.  Even my wife, whose biography is very similar to mine, has a different religious sense of place, in part — I suspect — because her first imprints of Mormonism occured in the more a-historical religious enviroment of a suburban ward in southern California.

While I fret about the continuing viability of a spirituality of place, I have to remind myself of the advantages of the odd position in which I find myself.  Had I been born amidst the agressive Mormon theology of place in the 19th century my attitude toward Blake’s poem would have been more defensive.  The feet in ancient times trod American not English soil, and souls will be redeemed from the “dark Satanic Mills” in Deseret not Glastonbury!  Poised as I am between nostalgia for a geographically centered Zion building and the more universal and portable Mormonism of today, I have the luxury of both feeling the religious pull of place while maintaining enough distance from my own sacred places to enjoy “Jerusalem.”

UPDATE: Enjoy!

[Original reference to English geography corrected by Ronan. Thanks!]

25 Responses to “Jerusalem”

  1. Tim on May 18, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks for this.
    As an ELP fan, I’ve always found their version to be moving.
    This is the first time I’ve heard it elsewhere. Beautiful.

  2. Bill on May 18, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    Great tune and great poem. You hardly ever hear it in the US, partly because it is not in the 1982 Episcopal hymnbook (wasn’t in the 1940 book either). I have played it a few times in West Indian congregations where they use Hymns Ancient and Modern, and seem to have more of a connection to English traditions. I noticed that it is in the 1938 and 1971 Canadian hymnbooks (Anglican), but not the 1998 version.

  3. Ronan on May 18, 2009 at 3:43 pm

    Oh, Nate. No Englishman can hear this song without tears welling. Not flowing, mind you, because we’re English.

    Remember too that Blake is alluding to an old English legend that those feed *did indeed* walk upon England’s pastures green (cf. Glastonbury and Joseph of Arimathea). And why not, eh? After all, there were other other sheep…

  4. Ronan on May 18, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I should add that given that I’m 3 for 3 in your “tripartite sensibility,” you can imagine what a religious frenzy this hymn kicks off in me.

    Nate, come to England and we’ll stand atop Glastonbury Tor, sing Jerusalem, and toast Churchill, Magna Carta, Benbow Farm, and John Lennon.

  5. Keri Brooks on May 18, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    I love that hymn. My high school choir did a rendition of it one year. It was great. Even though I’ve never been to England’s green and pleasant lands, I love the call to build Zion where we are.

  6. S.P. Bailey on May 18, 2009 at 5:32 pm

    Good stuff. ‘Jerusalem’ speaks to my latent anglo-philia too. Also: it appears repeatedly in Monty Python sketches. Like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGEeLtqtNvU

  7. Benjiboo on May 18, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    It’s my favourite and I love to sing it. Let’s have it as an English National Anthem and whatever… But wasn’t this inspired out of a negative perception of the industrial revolution and wanting England to return to how it once was? The use of Jerusalem and scriptural imagery is purely metaphorical. (according to some…)

  8. Hunter on May 18, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    I remember several years ago hearing about this phenomenon from a good friend who had served a mission in London. I don’t have the same emotional connection to this hymn as he, but I love the apparent widespread devotion to it in England.

    And speaking of which, Ronan, maybe you can explain what to do with the dissonance between an English public that is more and more agnostic (or at least less church-going) and this hymn’s overt religious references?

  9. Aloysiusmiller on May 18, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    I love the hymn but I understand that some Anglican clergy have banned it.

  10. Bill on May 18, 2009 at 6:58 pm
  11. Nate Oman on May 18, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    “Nate, come to England and we’ll stand atop Glastonbury Tor, sing Jerusalem, and toast Churchill, Magna Carta, Benbow Farm, and John Lennon.”

    Deal. If you make it to Virginia, I’ll show you the beginning of English-speaking America and we can watch the geese and herons gliding over the James.

  12. Nate Oman on May 18, 2009 at 7:39 pm

    The Times article on banning the hymn is actually worth a read and not simply so that one can shake one’s head at PC silliness. What upsets the deans is precisely the way that the hymn associates the sacred with place. The implicit critique seems to be that the truly sacred must be universal and that there is no way of sacralizing place without falling into nationalism and jingoism. Indeed, so invisible is the notion of sacralized space that one dean suggests that the hymn has no religious content at all.

    What is striking to me is how close a kind of universalist Christianity’s hostility to sacred space is to the profane view that denies the possibility of the sacred all together. It’s a point that Charles Taylor makes in _A Secular Age_.

  13. Mark D. on May 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    I first heard ‘Jerusalem’ in the closing scenes of Chariots of Fire (1981):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fKN5VkDAkg
    (Start at 5:45)

    It was when I first read the words few years later that I really started to appreciate it. I don’t think these sorts of hymns should be understood as saying that one country is more sacred than another. I think they should be understood as honoring the oft forgotten dead of one’s one country and what they did to lay the foundation for every blessing we enjoy today. In that sense *every* country is sacred and deserves to be remembered with hymns like this. It is a rare occasion when I ever feel the Spirit stronger.

  14. aloysiusmiller on May 18, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    12. When they throw out the symbol they wind up throwing away the meaning of the symbol. On one level this could be seen as nationalistic but on another it is a cry to the people of England to live their lives so that their place would become sacred.

    I say keep the hymn and keep one shred of connection to a people who will be destroyed without that last lifeline into Sodom and Gomorrah.

  15. Anthony on May 18, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Love this hymn. You should check out Libera’s version of it. Absolutely beautiful.

  16. Jones on May 18, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    Count me as another big fan of both the melody and text of this gorgeous hymn. I was reminded that I had first heard it in Chariots of Fire when I saw the movie Calendar Girls. I know some of you may not have seen that movie since it involved some unclothed skin. I just recently searched with Google’s help to find the hymn — I wasn’t even sure of the name of it. But I did find it and have been carrying the printed text around with me in my daily planner. Thank you for providing even more depth of understanding and enjoyment of the hymn with this thread.

  17. Jim F. on May 18, 2009 at 11:19 pm

    I’m anything but an Anglophile, though I do like those Angles and Saxons, but this is also, mysteriously, one of my favorite hymns.

  18. woodboy on May 18, 2009 at 11:22 pm

    The Jerusalem tune is in the Hymnal 1982, but with different words. I believe it’s “O day of peace that dimly shines,” at least that’s what it’s paired with in most American hymnals. The Blake text and the Parry tune go together so well, it’s almost sacrilege to sing it with different words though. It’s a shame we don’t get to sing it more often…

  19. Justmeherenow on May 18, 2009 at 11:51 pm

    WPædia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/And_did_those_feet_in_ancient_time#Popularisation_of_the_hymn ):

    “The poem, which was little known during the century which followed its writing, was included in a patriotic anthology of verse published in 1916, a time when morale had begun to decline due to the high number of casualties in the First World War and the perception that there was no end in sight.

    “Under these circumstances, it seemed to many to define what England was fighting for. Therefore, Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate asked Parry to put it to music at a Fight for Right campaign meeting in London’s Queen’s Hall. The aims of this organisation were ‘to brace the spirit of the nation that the people of Great Britain, knowing that they are fighting for the best interests of humanity, may refuse any temptation, however insidious, to conclude a premature peace, and may accept with cheerfulness all the sacrifices necessary to bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion’.[13] Bridges asked Parry to supply the verse with ‘suitable, simple music that an audience could take up and join in’.”[…]”

    “Since Jerusalem is considered to be England’s most popular patriotic song, it has been used as an alternative national anthem, and there have even been calls to give it official status[15]. This is because England has no official anthem and so uses the British National Anthem”[…]”. Critics of the song have said that its reference to a foreign city, its non-secular basis make it unsuitable.”

  20. Bill on May 18, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks for the correction, woodboy. Now that I look more closely, I’m pretty sure I’ve played that version a few times too, but as you say, it is done pretty rarely.

  21. MikeInWeHo on May 19, 2009 at 12:10 am

    This hymn will forever be associated in my mind with the delightful British movie “Calendars Girls.” For anyone here who’s seen the film: Is that what RS is like? :)

  22. Dan Ellsworth on May 19, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I was introduced to Jerusalem by ELP; knowing that there are other ELP fans out there warms my geeky heart.

  23. Hans Hansen in California on May 19, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    This Norwegian considers “Jerusalem” to be one of his favorite hymns. I played organ for a Seventh-day Adventist congregation back in the ’80s. They had it in their hymnal but with a different text: “O World of God”, text by R.B.Y. Scott, 3 verses; tune by C.H.H. Parry, arr. by Gordon P.S. Jacob. “Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal” (1985), #80.

  24. Justmeherenow on May 20, 2009 at 12:49 am

    Many Brits today no doubt relate ironically to “Jerusalem’s” religious meanings and imagery. As, I image, many Yanks relate but ironically to the religious meanings and imagery in the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

    Here is a youtube moviemaker’s montage of American cinematic martial scenes matched to this States-side anthem-and-hymn, sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (of course!):

  25. Vader on May 21, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    Mack Wilberg’s arrangement of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is brilliant. It deserves to be much better known in the LDS community than it is.