During a relentless heat wave during the summer of 1966, Kathleen Thomerson and her family, in an effort to escape the rolling brownouts of St Louis, elected to return to the comfort of her mother’s air conditioned home in Houston. Although a musician, not a poet, by training, and certainly not intending to write a hymn, Thomerson’s recent meditations on scripture passages dealing with childlike faith unexpectedly began to evoke the first stanza of this hymn, which she composed, phrase by phrase both in text and tune, instead of packing for the airport. She composed the remaining stanzas in the same fashion after arriving in Houston, hence giving genesis to the tune name. Originally conceived as a choral anthem, its first use as a hymn was at Church of the Redeemer, Episcopal, in Houston, where congregants routinely purloined the copies that had been placed in each pew. The popularity of this hymn grew appreciably within the next few years, necessitating its copyrighting in 1970. Although originating in the Episcopal Church, the hymn has been appropriated within the hymnals of numerous mainline denominations and has been translated into Welsh, Japanese, Spanish, Dutch and Hmong.
Although placed within the hymnal’s Epiphany section, the text, which has been used even for weddings and funerals, bears a pronounced Advent theme, evidenced particularly by the second stanza which references Malachi 4: 2, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Nevertheless, the distinct emphasis on light contrasted with dark not only suggests an Epiphany usage, but links it not only to the hymnological tradition of Luther, for whom such theological dichotomies were of primary importance, but even back to Greek hymnody with its frequent allusion to the “light” of Christ to the Gentiles. The hymn’s original extra-liturgical composition, as well as its devotional character, suggests general congregational use beyond one or two liturgical seasons.
The incipient theme of Christ abiding within the heart of the Christian was inspired by Ephesians 3: 17, “. . . so that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” Michael Hawn posits that, like in a gospel song, the hymn’s refrain encapsulates its theological meaning, in this case culminating in the final words, “Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus,” not only gaining inspiration from Ephesians, but also alluding to I John 1: 5, “This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” Thomerson contends that her meditation on scripture inspired this hymn, with its rich scriptural metaphor and imagery even conveying an eschatological tone in the penultimate phrase, which is nearly verbatim from Revelation 21: 23, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” The hymn may manifest a theme of childhood, alluding to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18: 3, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” but it was initially composed for adults to nurture their childlike faith. Its length may seemingly belie its childlike simplicity, but the text’s amalgamation of subjective, first-person pronouns with profuse scripture references seem to have been elemental to its popular success, much to the surprise of the composer, who originally harbored only modest aspirations for her choral anthem.
Thomerson originally wrote this hymn in D-flat, although performance concerns have normally resulted in its transposition to C-major in most hymnals. The gracefully simple melody and text effortlessly “composed themselves,” Thomerson recalls, but she later had to work out a harmonization feasible for choral singing. Some settings include a fermata at the end of the third line of the refrain simply to allow for a breath when singing it in four parts; however, this is not necessary for unison, congregational singing. At the beginning of the last phrase, all four voices intentionally converge on the C of “shine” in order aurally to highlight that word which forms the focal point of the final and culminating phrase of the hymn.
–Benjamin Kolodziej © Concordia Publishing House, St Louis
Personal interview with Kathleen Armstrong Thomerson. 9 July, 2009.
Hawn, Michael. “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light.” United Methodist Hymnal Companion, edited by Carlton Young. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.