Queen Victoria arrives at St Paul's Cathedral for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

God of Our Fathers, Known of Old

Image credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the waning days of the 19th century, the United Kingdom was the most powerful country on earth. The British Empire was at its imperial zenith. More than a quarter of the world’s population—and a portion of every continent—was under its dominion, and ruling over it all was Queen Victoria, the woman who had worn the crown longer than any sovereign in British history.

On September 23, 1896, the queen surpassed King George III as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, but she requested that celebrations of the milestone be delayed until June 1897, the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne. […] Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee began solemnly with a family Thanksgiving service at Windsor Castle on Sunday, June 20, 1897, the 60th anniversary of her inheritance of the throne. The following day, the queen returned to London to find a sea of color had washed over the city’s soot-coated streets. Union Jacks draped from house balconies. Festoons of flowers and rainbows of bunting soared overhead. The explosion of hues reflected a country bursting with patriotic pride. “The streets, the windows, the roofs of the houses, were one mass of beaming faces, and the cheers never ceased,” the queen wrote in her journal. That night at Buckingham Palace, Victoria sat next to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose 1914 assassination would spark the start of World War I, at a state banquet. As a tired queen turned in for the night, thousands of Britons, eager to watch the grand royal procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral the next morning, slept in the parks outside the palace walls.

As dawn broke on the overcast morning of Tuesday, June 22, 1897, which had been declared a public holiday, hundreds of thousands of people crowded the London sidewalks in anticipation of the royal parade. Vendors hawked souvenir jubilee flags, mugs and programs. A human fence of soldiers, their bayonets protruding like pickets, walled off the route of the six-mile procession. […]

Eight cream horses pulled the queen in an open carriage. Despite the festive occasion, Victoria—in perpetual mourning for her beloved husband, Albert, and two of her children—was dressed in black. The colorful dress uniforms of the colonial forces, however, more than compensated for the monochrome monarch. The procession, which included representatives of all Empire nations, swept by many of London’s world-famous landmarks, such as Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, London Bridge and Big Ben. The queen’s subjects, many of whom had never known another monarch, cheered her along the entire route and broke into spontaneous verses of “God Save the Queen.” Deeply touched by the outpouring of affection, Victoria occasionally wiped tears from her eyes before arriving at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a Thanksgiving service.

Since painful arthritis impeded the 78-year-old queen’s ability to climb the cathedral steps, the decision had been made in advance to hold the service outside at the foot of St. Paul’s west steps. Crowds packed specially erected bleachers on surrounding rooftops. The steps of St. Paul’s were so crowded that choir members were forced to stand on the massive pedestals flanking the cathedral’s entrance. The queen, shading herself with a parasol, remained in her coach for the 20-minute ceremony. Following the brisk service, the procession drove off as the Archbishop of Canterbury shouted out, “Three cheers for the Queen!” […]

In her journal, Queen Victoria called it “a never to be forgotten day.” “No one ever I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given to me, passing through those six miles of streets,” she wrote. “The crowds were quite indescribable and their enthusiasm truly marvelous and deeply touching. The cheering was quite deafening, and every face seemed to be filled with real joy. I was much moved and gratified.” To Victoria and everyone in London celebrating the Diamond Jubilee, it must have seemed as if the sun would indeed never set on the British Empire.1

You are likely at least somewhat familiar with the name Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Kim, and others. Of course, as an Englishman, he participated in the Jubilee festivities for Queen Victoria… in fact, he was in such awe after witnessing the sea-power of 165 ships from the English navy assembled for this celebration, that he wrote, “Never dreamed that there was anything like it under Heaven. It was beyond words—beyond any description!”

As he was considered the best poet of the day, the English public had hoped Kipling would honor this grand occasion with a poem, but he actually never intended to write a poem for it. Attempts prior to festivities ended up in the wastebasket, but it seems Kipling was inspired during the show of power, and perhaps not as you might think. This is the poem he wrote, titled “Recessional”:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Kipling submitted this poem to The Times for publication, but because he intended this poem for the edification of the people, he told the editor that he did not require payment for it. He suffered some anxiety about its presentation to the public, as it was so contrary to the general mood at the time. Such sobriety amidst deafening cheers for the glory of England! Listen to this sober recitation.

The refrain “lest we forget” harks back to Deuteronomy 6:12, a warning Moses gives the Israelites after their forty years of wandering the wilderness. “Then beware lest thou forget the Lord which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt.”

Now, the first three stanzas of Kipling’s poem appear in our hymnbook as #80 “God of Our Father, Known of Old”. It isn’t commonly sung in our meetings, perhaps because we’re not often in the mood to sing something with so much gravitas. And, while the tune in our hymnbook is appropriately solemn, it is unique to our church, and so far no one has performed it vocally and posted it on the Internet for us to enjoy. (I did find this pretty instrumental version, though.)

But, never fear! This hymn is more commonly sung to a tune by Reginald De Koven as follows. (And with some digging, I found that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has performed it to this tune and arrangement as well, though I still prefer Leonard Warren’s performance.)

Now, if you haven’t grown to appreciate this hymn yet, let me give you a whole gigantic list of conference talks which quote it. (Does this still count as an obscure hymn? Yes? Darn.)

And, since I love to end on a bonus, here’s a more folksy rendition that I like:

Happy singing! Or… I suppose this one isn’t happy. Much singing, then!

Jenna DiltsJenna Dilts is a mother of three pre-school-aged children. Last year she led a discussion of Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles on the AO forum. You can find her blogging at To Work Wonders, where she is currently working through AO year 1 for herself.