This tune, AUSTRIA, was composed by Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn after visits to England in 1791 and 1794 where he was impressed by English musical patriotism as expressed musically through “God Save the King.” (The tune is the one which the Americans appropriated for the text, “My Country, ‘tis of Thee.”) Haydn’s melody, then, was composed for the three-stanza text “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser,” presumably to stir nationalism in the otherwise-ambivalent Austrians. A prodigious and devout composer, Haydn’s works were all prefaced with In nomine Domini and concluded with Laus Deo. This poor tune, however, found itself the victim of history when the Weimar Republic adopted it as the German national anthem in 1922.
The text, “Glorious Things,” was written by John Newton (1725-1807) and was inspired by Isaiah 33: 20, 21, “Look upon Zion, the city of our festivals; your eyes will see Jerusalem, a peaceful abode, a tent that will not be moved; its stakes will never be pulled up, nor any of its ropes broken.” A converted slave trader, he became an evangelical priest in the Church of England, eventually writing Olney Hymns (1773), in which this text is included as well as other staples of the hymnological diet such as “Amazing Grace.” Newton likewise inspired the poet William Cowper who, on the days he was sane and not feeding his rabbits or growing his peas, contributed a number of hymns as well.
When one considers what slave traders must have been like, and then considers the use of beautiful language, poetry, and metaphor Newton uses in this hymn, we must be struck by the conversion Newton must truly have experienced. Always plagued by guilt in his later life, one can sense in this hymn that Newton is desperately trying to separate earthly life from the spiritual life. The fact that this hymn sings the praises of “Zion,” a metaphor for heaven, is the first clue. Consider how Newton considers himself, in the fourth stanza, a member of this heavenly city, though “the world deride and pity, I will glory in Your name. Fading are the world’s vain pleasures, all their boasted pomp and show; solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.” This stanza exudes the joy of the knowledge of forgiveness, and the ability of the Christian to be forgiven for the sins committed on earth. Here Newton places the cherubim and seraphim “round each habitation hovering,” with the “fire and cloud” appearing to veil God’s presence and holiness, providing safety and “manna” to all the redeemed.
We would do well to consider today that our society, enlightened as it thinks it is, is not much better (in fact, arguably worse) than Newton’s. His hymn reminds us of this dichotomy between heaven and earth—we must live, work, and witness on earth, but our vision of the future heavenly Jerusalem must never be clouded by life’s ephemera.