During WWII, William Watkins Reid, Jr. (1923-2007) served in the United States Army Medical Corps and was captured by the Germans.
Later, after graduating from Yale Divinity School, he became a Methodist pastor serving churches in North Dakota and Pennsylvania.
When the Hymn Society of America and the National Council of Churches co-sponsored a contest for a new hymn, Rev. Reid submitted “O GOD OF EVERY NATION,” a plea for peace. His hymn won first prize!
It was introduced in 1958 when the world was still reeling, having barely recovered from Hitler’s “final solution” and the first use of nuclear bombs. The 1950s saw the horrors of the Korean War and heightened tensions of the Cold War. Citizens in the U.S. built bomb shelters and took cover during air raid drills in preparation for more to come. In his 1961 Farewell Address, President Dwight D. Eisenhower would warn of the dangers of the growing “military-industrial complex” — government collaboration with the arms industry.
Rev. Reid knew first hand the cost of war and saw past the disguise of ribbons, flags, and patriotic marches. In his hymn, we pray-sing”Keep bright in us the vision of days when war shall cease …” and “heal our strife-torn world.”
WHERE DO WE PLACE OUR TRUST?
In 1907, Teddy Roosevelt threatened to banish the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST,” fearing that such a motto on our money could be considered sacrilege.
Witty Mark Twain took that moment of controversy to openly muse that it was a beautiful motto, simple and direct — then added, “I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true.”
In this hymn we pray that God would deliver every nation “from trust in bombs that shower destruction through the night.” Do we have the faith?
NAMING SOCIETAL SINS
In this hymn, we confess that “hate and fear divide us” and name as evils the “search for wealth and power” and “scorn of truth and right.” There is a nod to pride of racial and economic privilege. Sadly, these societal sins not only continue to plague us in the 21st century, but appear to be on the increase.
Loath to sound naive by questioning a reliance on war and weapons and reluctant to seem unpatriotic, we square off, rattling our sabers, our nuclear bombs, our napalm, our guns.
The verses of this hymn counter those assumptions and allow us to give voice to a different ethos. We sing to the God of every nation to work through us to redeem creation.
We sing that “hatred and division give way to love and peace” and offer a prayer that those who work for truth and justice will be strengthened, especially when their hope and courage falters.
With confidence we proclaim that God’s love and mercy will guide us to the dawning of a glorious new day.
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: ‘O God of Every Nation’” by C. Michael Hawn, UMC Discipleship Ministries
“O God of Every Nation” Music, lyrics, and background on Hymnary website
The Hymn Society website
The National Council of Churches website