Hymn text by Reginald Heber, 1783-1826. View the full text of this hymn.

Here we have a hymn about missionary work from the early 1800’s, included in the first LDS hymnbook, written by a man named Heber. It’s all the makings of a Restoration hymn, but it surprisingly is not—no, Reginald Heber wrote this hymn while an Anglican priest, later to become the Bishop of Calcutta. As a writer, his hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” is the most popular and is popular in Protestant congregations today.

The version of this hymn that we sing today is somewhat different from its original 1819 version, then titled “From Greenland’s Icy Hills.” Small wording changes aside, a whole verse caused the hymn to fall out of favor in many churches, and is not present in the LDS printing; its reference to converting “heathens”—originally penned as “savages”—is a vestige of a time with a different political environment.

Heber’s hymn is decidedly poetic. It was said that, “It is obvious from that hymn that Heber had a more literary style of hymn-writing than most of his predecessors. For him, poetic imagery was as important as didactic truth. He liked the well-turned phrase, the carefully chosen adjective and the telling figure of speech. His really were ‘hymns of human composition’ (John Betjeman, Sweet Songs of Zion).

Come, all whose souls are lighted
With wisdom from on high.
Shall we, to men benighted,
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! Oh, salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till earth’s remotest nation
Has learned Messiah’s name.

Note the message of this first verse, and that it is dramatically different than some other missionary texts. While other hymns may first exhort us to “go” and “preach” the gospel to others, this hymn first asks: Who are we to deny the light to others? What possible reason can we have to keep our mouths shut, when we have the light of the Gospel in our lives?

In his impressive book “The Power of Everyday Missionaries,” Harvard business professor and management guru Clayton M. Christensen clarifies a missionary misconception: We can’t prepare people to receive the Gospel; the Lord prepares them. We can’t possibly know who is ready to receive it. In Brother Christensen’s words, “The only way all people can have the opportunity to choose or reject the gospel of Jesus Christ is for us, without judgment, to invite them to follow the Savior.”

From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain.

Indeed, broad swaths of mankind—entire eras of history, certainly, but also large geographic areas now—live or have lived in darkness, unlit by the “lamp of life”. But what about those closer to home? Are those who live in our own country, and even on our own street, any less dragged down by the chain of error?

Go tell, ye winds, his story,
And mighty waters, roll,
Till, like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature
The Lamb, for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator
In bliss returns to reign.

Eventually, the Gospel will spread like a sea of glory to all the ends of the Earth. But what winds will take it from pole to pole? What mighty waters will roll it forth? It’s you, ye winds, and it’s me. The original text speaks in second person to the waters, as well: “You, ye waters, roll.” The Lord’s gospel has been cut out of the mountain without hands, but the rolling is up to us—those of us who already have the Gospel.

Those of us whose souls are lighted.

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