This week we will sing a wonderful example of a hymn promoting ethnic and racial inclusivity, “In Christ there is no East or West” (529 in
The Hymnal 1982
). The words come from John Oxenham (1852-1941). Unfortunately the original second stanza is omitted from our hymnal. I have included it at the end of this article.
John Oxenham was born in Manchester, England, as William Arthur Dunkerley. He ran a successful wholesale grocery business in England and France. When he eventually became a full-time writer, he borrowed the pseudonym John Oxenham from an adventure novel and produced forty-four novels and twenty other works of prose and poetry. This hymn is his only text that still is used in worship. “In Christ there is no East or West” was written as part of “The Pageant of Darkness and Light,” an extravagant production presented at the London Missionary Society Exhibition in 1908, a month-long event. The pageant later toured Europe and the United States. It dramatized the spread of the Gospel to every part of the world.
The text of Oxenham’s hymn reinforces the structure of the pageant’s four scenes. The “East” scene occurs in India, focusing on a young widow who faces death on her husband’s funeral pyre. Hawaii is the location of the “West,” where a native priest prepares to sacrifice two victims in order to appease a nasty goddess who has just caused a volcanic eruption. The “South” scene takes us to an African village. Here David Livingstone is building a church while simultaneously dealing with a slave trader. A Native American settlement on the Northwest coast is where the “North” scene takes place and features a tribal chief’s lost daughter. All four scenes are brought to happy conclusions when a missionary or another Christian intervener proclaims the Gospel!
The tune which is usually sung with “In Christ there is no East or West” is called MCKEE. It is one of the first melodies from the African-American culture to appear in a significant Protestant hymnal. MCKEE was adapted from the spiritual “I know the angel’s done changed my name,” popularized in the late 1800’s by the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville. The melody was later arranged for piano by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in his
Twenty-Four Negro Melodies
(1905). It is said that the tune may have been brought to the United States by Irish immigrants and later embraced by African Americans.
In 1939 Henry T. Burleigh (1866-1949) adapted this melody for “In Christ there is no East or West.” The text and tune were first paired together in
The Hymnal 1940
(Episcopal). Burleigh was a prominent African American composer, music arranger, educator, and a founder of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). One of the greatest singers of his day and grandson of a Maryland slave, he accompanied Booker T. Washington on his fund-raising trips. Befriended and influenced by the famous Czech composer Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), Burleigh likely provided themes for Dvorak’s
New World Symphony
. The tune MCKEE is named in honor of the Rev. Elmer McKee, rector at St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City, where Burleigh was the baritone soloist from 1894 to 1946 (quite an amazing run for a church musician)! From 1900 to 1925 he was also cantor at Temple Emmanu-El in New York City.
One commentary on “In Christ there is no East or West” gives this powerful summary of the hymn: “When the Holy Spirit creates one great fellowship of love in Jesus Christ, compass direction and location are irrelevant, for the love of Christ reaches all corners of the earth in the proclamation of the Good News.” The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the pandemic of racial prejudice which still infects our society. We need the unifying and transforming force of God’s Holy Spirit. Praying and singing “In Christ there is no East or West” presents the healing message of oneness which we need to communicate to each other and to the rest of the world. As Jesus clearly shows us, love for every person and readiness to serve others are what discipleship is all about.
In Christ there is no East or West, in him no South or North,
But one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.
In him shall true hearts everywhere their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord close binding humankind.
Join hands, disciples of the faith, whate’er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as his child is surely kin to me.
In Christ now meet both East and West, in him meet South and North,
All Christly souls are one in him, throughout the whole wide earth.