Father, hear the prayer we offer

Father, hear the prayer we offer:
not for ease that prayer shall be,
but for strength that we may ever
live our lives courageously.

This American hymn is taken from a poem by Mrs Love Maria Willis (1824-1908) which begins "Father hear the prayer I offer". It was published in Tiffany's Monthly (c.1856) with the title "Aspiration" and in J S Adam's Psalms of Life (USA, 1857). Willis was the wife of a doctor who lived most of her life in Rochester, New York. The poem was revised, probably by Samuel Longfellow, for publication in Hymns of the Spirit (1884). The fifth and last verse is omitted from most hymnals:

Let our path be bright or dreary,
Storm or sunshine be our share;
May our souls, in hope unweary,
Make thy work our ceaseless prayer.

The hymn has been the subject of much criticism. It has no specifically Christian content, and misrepresents Psalm 23 in the second and third verses. "Not for ever in green pastures..." and "Not for ever by still waters..." are taken from the psalm to suggest an inactivity which contrasts with the energy implicit in treading the "rugged pathway" and smiting the "living fountains". Despite this, the hymn is popular across the denominations, as it effectively describes the Christian calling to a life of difficulty and frustration. The only other Biblical reference comes in verse 3, recalling Numbers 20:11 - "And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly".


Three tunes are associated with this hymn. Hymns Ancient and Modern favours Marching. The English Hymnal and the BBC Hymn Book favour Sussex. Songs of Praise favours Gott will's machen. The Anglican Hymn Book offers both the last of these and Sussex. Since Ralph Vaughan Williams arranged a traditional folk tune which he heard in Sussex to the words of this hymn for the English Hymnal (1906), it is perhaps appropriate to regard this tune as the first choice. It appears to belong to a group of folk-tunes associated with an old song "Madam, I am come to court you", or "Lady on the Mountain".

Nigel Day

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 12th August 1997