“O Brother Man”

"Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…" (Jas. 1.27)

     INTRO.: A hymn which shows us that one aspect of our worship is to teach and admonish others to engage in pure and undefiled religion is "O Brother Man." The text was written by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). Penned in 1847 and 1848 as part of a poem entitled "Worship" with fifteen stanzas to contrast the excesses and carnalities of pagan worship with what Whittier considered to be the essential duty of man, it was first published in his 1850 Labor and Other Poems. The original first stanza of the poem was:
"The pagan’s myths through marble lips are spoken,
The ghosts of old beliefs still flit and moan,
Round fane and altar overthrown and broken,
O’er tree-grown barrow and gray ring of stone."
Usually, only stanzas 11, 13, 14, and 15 have been used as a hymn. Many of Whittier’s other poems have been also turned into hymns, such as "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind" and "Immortal Love, Forever Full."

      Several tunes have been used with "O Brother Man," including one (Strength and Stay) by John B. Dykes, another (Intercessor) by Charles H. H. Parry, still another (Welwyn) by Alfred Scott-Gatty, yet another (Vesalius) by E. Cooper Perry, and one other (Ilona) by Joseph W. Lerman.  When the hymn was first introduced among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, it was set to a tune (Windsor) that was composed by Joseph Barnby (1838-1896). It so appeared in the 1975 Supplement to the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 originally edited by E. L. Jorgenson. Today, the text is found with another tune (Henderson) composed by O. C. Henderson and harmonized by his son-in-law Rollie Blondeau, in the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann.

     The song encourages us to translate our worship into care and concern for our fellow human beings.

I. Stanza 1 emphasizes the brotherhood of mankind
"O brother man, fold to thy heart thy brother;
Where pity dwells, the peace of God is there.
To worship rightly is to love each other,
Each smile a hymn, each deed a kindly prayer."
 A. While only those who are in Christ are spiritual brothers, there is a sense in which all mankind are brothers, physically speaking, because God has made of one blood all nations: Acts 17.26 (cf. Acts 22.13)
 B. Therefore, our hearts should be filled with pity at the needs of others: Prov. 28.8
 C. While God has commanded specific acts in worship and just doing good to others cannot replace them, at the same time, God has commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves and being involved in worship cannot replace it: Matt. 22.39

II. Stanza 2 emphasizes the need to help others
"For he whom Jesus loved has truly spoken–
The holier worship which He deigns to bless
Restores the lost, and binds the spirit broken,
And feeds the widow and the fatherless."
 A. The clause "he whom Jesus loved hath spoken" obviously refers to the apostle John and his teaching that we should love one another: Jn. 13.25, 21.20-24; 1 Jn. 3.16-18, 4.7-11
 B. While it could be argued that the word "worship" is used a bit loosely in this song, especially given Whittier’s Quaker beliefs, it might also be pointed out that one of the words that is translated "worship" in the New Testament can also be translated "service," which is what this stanza is talking about; those who love their fellowman will surely strive to restore the lost: Gal. 6.1
 C. They will also help the widow and the fatherless as part of their service to God: Isa. 1.16-17

III. Stanza 3 emphasizes the example of Jesus
"Follow with reverent steps the great example
Of Him whose holy work was doing good;
So shall the wide earth seem our Father’s temple,
Each loving life a psalm of gratitude."
 A. We are told that Jesus left us an example that we should follow in His steps: 1 Pet. 2.21
 B. Part of His example to us is that He went about doing good: Acts 10.38
 C. Therefore, in following Him, the wide earth will seem God’s temple and we shall learn to love all men as ourselves: Matt. 5.43-48

IV. Stanza 4 emphasizes the results of true love for our fellowman
"Then shall all shackles fall, the stormy clangor
Of wild war music o’er the earth shall cease;
Love shall tread out the baleful fire of anger,
And in its ashes plant the tree of peace."
 A. When people are guided by true love, all shackles or chains of slavery to sin will fall and there will be genuine spiritual freedom: Rom. 6.16-18
 B. Also, the stormy clangor of wild war music will cease because in God’s spiritual kingdom people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks: Isa. 2.1-4
 C. Finally, love will overcome anger and replace it with true peace: Matt. 5.9, 1 Pet. 3.8-11

     CONCL.: While this song was once very popular in denominational hymnals, it is not even found in them as much as it once was. It has not been very well known among us, and some might object to it as seeking to eliminate the importance of true worship and turning the religion of Christ into just doing good. However, I believe that it makes an important point that as we seek to be followers of Jesus, we must be concerned about others and do what we can to help them, addressing in our minds each fellow human being as "O Brother Man."


6 thoughts on ““O Brother Man”

  1. I thought I might comment on your mention of true worship. As a Friend (Quaker), I do believe that true worship is 'letting my life speak'. We are quite literally Christ's hands and feet in this world. Our form of worship is very plain and simple. We listen deeply to the Spirit's still, small voice and then go and do. Our silent, listening worship is incomplete without the other active part.

  2. The purpose of this blog is not to discuss theological questions, but I obviously do make my comments on hymns based upon my own "theological" beliefs, which I seek to base solely upon the scriptures, so I also feel the need to explain my explanation.
    I was in no means seeking to disparage the idea that our responsibility to God means 'letting my life speak' because I agree that Christians "are quite literally Christ's hands and feet in this world." However, that is not what the Bible refers to as "true worship" and there is more to our relationship with God than just that.
    The word that is most often translated "worship" in the New Testament is defined as an act or acts which manifest an attitude of reverence and awe and by which one seeks to express praise and devotion to God.
    This same attitude will most certainly be expressed in various forms of service to our fellowmen (Matt. 25:31-46). However, the scriptures nowhere specifically call that "worship." However, the scriptures do talk about Christians singing and praying when they come together (1 Corinthians 14:15, 26). These kinds of acts are what is generally meant by the word "worship."

  3. This hymn has long been a favorite of mine. I learned it with a tune that I searched for, but have been unable to find.

    Of the tunes that you mention, I have been unable to locate "Henderson" "Ilona" and "Vesalius". Do you by a
    ny chance have music or cybertunes for these three tunes?

    Perhaps one of them is the one I have been searching for so long!

    • Were you by any chance at school in Beckenham Kent in the 1970s? I ask because I too have long been searching for a tune that no one else seems to have heard of! I learned it at school and loved it. It’s not in any of the hymn books that I’ve so far found; neither is it in the book we used at school.

  4. Did any of you find the music for this? My mother has been looking for the music as she remembers it from the 1940’s when she was at school. So far she has not found the version that she sang at school. She would like us to sing it my fathers memorial on 28th Feb 2015.
    any help with this greatly appreciated

  5. For those of you who are looking for a tune to “O Brother Man”, sung c. 1970s, you may be thinking of the choral anthem composed by Roy Ringwald. In the early 1960s my high school choir performed this anthem frequently. I was thinking about it recently, longing to see the music again. I found it available for purchase online at J W Pepper Sheet Music. The publisher, Shawnee Press, prints the music as it is requested, so it takes a couple of weeks to arrive. The price is really cheap, and you can buy a single copy if that is all you need. The version is SATB. “O Brother Man” was one of my favorite choral works in high school. John Greenleaf Whittier, who composed the poem from which the hymn was drawn, was an abolitionist. He wrote the poem about a decade before the Civil War erupted. We need to sing hymns like this one again today, whether in church or as repertoire within a secular setting. My high school was diverse, and we all respected one another. I do not remember a single instance of bullying.


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