Dear Friends,
This may not come as a surprise to you, but I have always been a hymn Geek. (Yes, with a capital G!) As a kid, I would try to predict what hymns we would be singing in church on Sunday. On All Saints’ Day, I always guessed one of the hymns correctly: “For all the saints.” This Sunday if you would walk into almost any Christian church that follows the liturgical calendar, you probably would hear the congregation singing this hymn. (All Saints’ Day occurs on November 1. When the 1st doesn’t fall on a Sunday, many churches celebrate the festival on the first Sunday in November.)

William Walsham How (1823-1897) wrote “For all the saints” (287 in The Hymnal 1982 ) for All Saints’ Day in 1864. Also a hymn geek from the start, William How was born and educated in Shrewsbury, England. As a child, he wrote hymns for services that he held with his sister and brother. “For all the saints” was inspired by chapter 11 in the New Testament book of Hebrews. This is known as the “faith chapter” as it recalls the faithful deeds of many Old Testament heroes. And the hymn certainly illustrates the “cloud of witnesses” spoken of in Hebrews 12:1. 

The hymn writer himself might be considered a hero of the faith. William How is remembered as one of the most conscientious and well-known clergy of his time. In 1846 he was ordained in the Anglican Church. He was appointed suffragan bishop of East London in 1879 and became known as the “poor man’s bishop” or the “omnibus bishop,” because he preferred to use public transportation instead of a private carriage. Much of his life was spent tending to those in need. He once listed the characteristics that a minister should have, among them being “wholly without thought of self.” 
The great British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote the tune which is most often sung with “For all the saints” specifically for that hymn. It first appeared in The English Hymnal (1906) and is recognized as one of the 20th century’s greatest hymn tunes. The tune is called SINE NOMINE (Latin for “without a name”). This might refer to all those saints whose names are known only to God. Vaughan Williams wrote tunes for several other well-loved hymns in The Hymnal 1982 , including “Hail thee, festival day” (175, 216, 225), “At the Name of Jesus” (435), “Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life” (487), and “Come down, O Love divine” (516).

Originally written with eleven stanzas (of which the third, fourth, and fifth are omitted in most hymnals), “For all the saints” covers a lot of territory. It gives thanks for the saints who have gone before us. It recognizes that the Church in heaven and the Church on earth are united in the mystical body of Christ. It draws a picture of the Church in holy warfare. It is a vision of the Church victorious. Most importantly, it is a prayer that we, too, may always be faithful to God. 

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed. Alleluia, alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might:
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, the one true Light. Alleluia, alleluia!

O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, 
And win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold. Alleluia, alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest. Alleluia, alleluia!

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia, alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Alleluia, alleluia!
Grace and Peace,

Mark Meyer
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
166 High Street
Newburyport, MA 01950