One day, early in the 20th century, Frank Mason North (1850-1935) seemed to see the whole seething multitude passing by his window — from the fashionable few to the ravaged masses.
He pondered Matthew 22:9 in which Jesus says, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” The main streets of New York were teeming with people who had clearly not been invited to the banquet.
That afternoon, North was inspired to write the words of a favorite Social Gospel hymn, “WHERE CROSS THE CROWDED WAYS OF LIFE.”
Social Gospel Theology Confronted Gilded Age Greed
A Methodist preacher, Rev. North was concerned not only with the salvation of individual souls, but with the salvation of the whole greed-burdened society.
This was the era Mark Twain dubbed the “Gilded Age,” when post-war social confusion combined with rapid industrialization. Wealth and political influence were concentrated in the hands of the few who amassed vast fortunes by exploiting “cheap labor.” The privileged partied, unmoved or oblivious, while the rest suffered. This is what Rev. North saw outside his window.
He remembered the saying of Jesus (Luke 14: 12-14), “When you give a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors … But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”
Rev. North imagined Jesus jostled in the crush with the oppressed and disempowered, the homeless and hungry. He saw Jesus in the faces of the immigrants, the underpaid, exhausted workers, beggars, people who stood in bread lines, and those who were too weak to stand.
Other progressive Christians united to push for social justice at the beginning of the 20th century. North linked his efforts to those of Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist preacher in NYC who advocated Social Gospel Christianity as a revolutionary movement to change the world by nonviolent means according to the teachings of Jesus. (Later, Rauschenbusch’s writings influenced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
North’s Hymn Is a Call to Action
“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” is a gift to hymn singers, as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. In it, we address ourselves directly to Jesus himself: “We hear your voice!” “We catch the vision of your tears!”
Later, the hymn still ringing in our 21st century ears, we remember. Rushing past each other, we glance up from our cell phones and catch a glimpse of the suffering stranger-Jesus in the streets of our small towns and big cities. If we’re honest, we know we have failed to do what Jesus asked of us.
Christians are called to wipe away the tears, feed the hungry, house the homeless, welcome the stranger, set free the imprisoned, comfort the afflicted, confront hatred, build bridges of understanding, and be the face of compassion for all God’s children.
We are called to transform city streets into places of God’s grace and show, by our actions on behalf of the marginalized, the restorative power of love, even in the face of our own Gilded Age greed and lust for power.
With the confused disciples of old, we are tempted to ask, “When did we see thee hungry?” This hymn reminds us to look out the window, care, get involved.
To Go Deeper
Books, Articles, Websites
“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” — Words and Music on Hymnary site
UMC biographical background on Frank Mason North
Christianity and The Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic that Woke Up the Church by Walter Rauschenbusch, 2007, Harper (100th anniversary edition of Rauschenbusch’s classic, with accompanying essays by contemporary thinkers)
A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch, 1918/ 2010 (now available on e-readers)
Art by Timothy P. Schmaltz
Gaelic melody version by Michael Card
As sung by the congregation of St. John’s in Detroit
Homeless Jesus sculpture discussion with artist Timothy P. Schmalz