A weblog by Will Fitzgerald


“Stafford” is a tune in the Sacred Harp. It’s a pretty tune, I think. It is periodicially the proximate cause of discussions on the Sacred Harp mailing list because of the lyrics to which it is set in in the Sacred Harp:

See what a living stone
The builders did refuse,
Yet God hath built His Church thereon,
In spite of env’ous Jews.

The sticking point is, of course, the last phrase: “envious Jews.” The lyrics are by Isaac Watts, an early 18th century English writer who wrote over 600 hymn texts and two books on logic. He wrote “Joy to the world,” and the poem, “How doth the little busy bee” parodied by Lewis Carroll as “How doth the little crocodile.” The discussion has been wide rannging and mostly respectful and on-topic (despite a tripping of Godwin’s law in one of the first emails). Kiri Miller has a chapter on an earlier iteration of this discussion in her yet unpublished dissertation, “A Long Time Traveling: Song, Memory, and the Politics of Nostalgia in the Sacred Hard Diaspora,” which I think is quite good (both the dissertation in general and this chapter in particular).

Anyway, in the middle of the night I started writing a replacement lyric which would simultaneously do several things: First, to honor Watts and his contribution to Christian hymnody. Second, to ‘repair’ the lyric of its purported anti-semitism, and make it ‘pro-semitic,’ as it were. (After all, if the first Christians were Jews, and the first Christians sang, then the first Christians were singing Jews). Third, to describe the longing I have to sing the praises of God in ‘harmony,’ both literally and in peace with my fellow singers. So I wrote this:

I seek an angel choir
To join in fearful praise
As Moses and as Miriam sang
With all the trembling saints.

The first and last lines are acrostics. It also links Sacred Harp singing to what I believe is the earliest recorded song of praise in the Bible (Exodus 15) as well as to when ‘the morning stars sang together and the sons of God shouted for joy’ (Job 38:7, KJV). Suggestions for enhancements willingly accepted!

I posted a similar note on the Sacred Harp discussion list, and some balked at the ‘fearful.’ But this comes more or less directly from the King James text of Exodus 15: “Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” Still, I might change it to “awe-filled.”


2 responses to “Stafford

  1. ---dean October 5, 2005 at 10:24 pm

    I esp like the Acrostic in the Night.

    I hope you’ll attempt something with Thomas Mudd’s “Let Thy Merciful Ears” – that way if successful it may be the first Acrostic in the Mudd

    Not worth even half a heh,


  2. Toni Minot January 29, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    I also like the tune “Stafford,” especially when it is sung forcefully rather than prettily. However, might is be possible to get some more acceptable words by using some of the latter verses (maybe verses 4 – 6, see below) rather than the first verse? Or how about a minor re-write of the first verse (e.g. substitute “views” for “Jews”), and then sing all six verses? Also, have you seen Michael Moore’s comments on this issue? I found them reprinted at: http://kiwitayro.livejournal.com/231488.html

    Stafford — Isaac Watts
    1. See what a living stone
    The builders did refuse,
    Yet God hath built His Church thereon,
    In spite of env’ous Jews.

    2. The scribe and angry priest
    Reject Thy holy Son.
    Yet on this rock shall Zion rest,
    As the chief cornerstone.

    3. The work, O Lord, is thine,
    And wondrous in our eyes,
    This day declares it all divine,
    This day did Jesus rise.

    4. This is the glorious day,
    That our Redeemer made,
    Let us rejoice and sing and pray,
    Let all the church be glad.

    5. Hosanna to the King,
    Of David’s royal blood,
    Bless Him, ye saints, He comes to bring
    Salvation from your God.

    6. We bless thine holy word,
    Which all this grace displays,
    And offer on thine altar, Lord,
    Our sacrifice of praise.

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