Hymn text by William E. Hickson, 1803-1870. View the full text of this hymn.

This well-known hymn offers a simple prayer  that is repeated no less than twelve times: “God speed the right.” And although there is much we could say about this line in its own right, I want to use this post to reflect on all the things the hymn leaves implicit. God Speed the Right is, I think, most striking for what it does not say.

First, notice the complete lack of divine perspective in this hymn. There are no words from the Lord promising us that good will triumph. There are no scriptural allusions reassuring us that this kind of zeal is warranted. The entire hymn is simply the hopeful, triumphant words of the saints without any textual justification. That’s quite unusual in our hymnal! Because hymns are intended to comfort or encourage us, they often remind us of the Savior, imagine his words to us in a difficult moment, or reflect on the promises of scripture. There is none of that here. This is a “prayer ascending” “to heav’n” without any mention of heaven’s response, and we ought to notice how unusual that is.

And while this does contain several clues regarding the context in which it’s spoken, it’s mostly implicit. The only way you can pray for God to “speed the right” is if “the right” isn’t here yet–if you’re praying from a situation of abuse and injustice. This is hinted at in several other lines, as well:

  • “In a noble cause contending
  • “Ne’er despairing, though defeated”
  • “No event nor danger fearing
  • Pains, nor toils, nor trials heeding”

In fact, when you consider just how optimistic and encouraging this hymn feels, it’s a little jarring to realize how gloomy its context is. That discrepancy is precisely what I want to dwell on. How can this hymn be so upbeat while contemplating such miserable circumstances? And how can it be so optimistic without explicit divine reassurance?

Because of this disparity–between gloom and injustice on the one hand, and buoyant zeal on the other–I find this hymn to be a particularly strong example of hope. Hope isn’t a virtue that we talk about much (we’re more comfortable defining and thinking about faith and charity), but for that very reason it may be the virtue that we most need to develop.

If you’ll forgive a particularly long quote (with rather too many ellipses), here is my favorite definition of hope, from Joseph M. Spencer:

“Real hope … emerges from or at the point of … objective hopelessness, and it emerges as a kind of conviction that the objective order of things can be changed. … Where despair gives up on the world in miserable conviction that it cannot be otherwise, hope gives up on the world in joyful affirmation that it can–and will–be otherwise. Hope … gives up on every hope in the fallen world at the very moment that it recognizes the possibility of a better world, a transformation of the world.” [1]

And again:

“If everyday hope is only a relatively weak desperation–a kind of self-confidence that one can find one’s way through the world–specifically Christian hope is set in motion by one’s trust that an event has somehow upset the regular order of things. … Trusting that the world changes (because Christ’s death and resurrection testify to it), one garners the hope necessary to get to work on the world.” [2]

This is what I see at work in this hymn. The disparity between this hymn’s context and its optimism comes precisely because the saints are motivated by hope–by a conviction that the world is fallen and unjust and in desperate need of a complete overhaul, but by an equally strong conviction that God will change that, and even more precisely, that we can effect that change with God’s help.

This is a hopeful hymn precisely because it connects our present actions with a future outcome that is, as yet, invisible. God’s “right” needs speeding because it isn’t yet here, but we are absolutely 100% certain that it will come, and that it will come as a response to our labor.  Thus, the prayer that “God speed the right” is as much a prayer that we will speed our labors, and in a kind of hopeful consecration get to work creating the kind of kingdom God intended for us to build.

[1] Joseph M. Spencer, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope (Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 22.
[2] Spencer, For Zion, 23.

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