John’s dream, described in the Book of Revelation, is beloved by poets, preachers, and songwriters. It explodes with fantastical creatures and swirls with mystery, but it also includes the vision of a Holy City — a place of splendor and light, where God’s grace shines like the sun, the gates are always open and welcoming, and there’s no pain, hunger, or tears.
“O HOLY CITY, SEEN OF JOHN” was written by Virginia-born Walter Russell Bowie (1882 -1969) who embraced the Social Gospel. Formulated by liberal Protestants as a response to industrialization, urbanization, and the resulting economic inequality of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this movement of the religious left addressed social sin and salvation and promoted a just society based on cooperation and compassion as emphasized in the teachings of Jesus.
In Bowie’s hands, the Holy City is contrasted with the cities we know — where the pampered and privileged play at the top of the heap, squeezing profit from despairing workers, oblivious to the misery of the vulnerable poor and least privileged among us. In our modern cities, “greed for gain in street and shop and tenement wring gold from human pain.”
Where are the Christians? Bowie wants to know. Shame on us “who rest content,” while working men and women struggle and little children cry. Shame! To the extent that we dismiss the Holy City as an unattainable dream, “Christ has died in vain.” Shame!
In the last two verses, this hymn becomes a call to action to build the city “whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood,” a challenge to “seize the whole of life” and build the Holy City. (Complete lyrics here.)
A Progressive Christian Life
Bowie moved north to study at Harvard where he completed his B.A. and M.A. and worked with Franklin D. Roosevelt on the Harvard Crimson. To complete his studies, he moved back to Virginia where his family was socially prominent.
Bowie was twenty-seven in 1909 when he wrote this hymn, the same year he became an ordained Episcopal priest in Virginia. A pacifist, he served as a hospital chaplain in France during WWI.
In 1923, he headed north again, this time to New York City where he was pastor at Grace Church for sixteen years and then a professor at Union Theological Seminary and later Dean of Students. During this time, he gained fame as a progressive Christian author and preacher.
Bowie joined the American Committee for Protection of Foreign Born. Formed to counter the racist immigration policies of that era, its members included Paul Robeson, Orson Welles, Emily Balch, Albert Einstein, and Langston Hughes.
Throughout his life, Rev. Bowie remained true to his conviction that the love-filled city of God is not a dream, but a goal toward which Christians are sworn to work.
Merciful God, you challenge us to build a city in which your love will shine. You are the architect of that beautiful city; we are the workers. The life and example of Jesus is our blueprint. Bless our efforts toward this vision of right relation and justice, a vision honoring the full potential of your creation.
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: O Holy City Seen of John” by Nick LaRocca, UMC Discipleship Ministries
“How the Social Gospel Movement Explains the Roots of Today’s Religious Left” by Christopher H. Evans, The Conversation, July 17, 2017,
“Walter Russell Bowie” October 8, 2011, Conjubilant with Song blog
“Homeless Jesus Statue Installed at Vatican” April 11, 2016, Jesuits.org
Art by Peter Howson, Scottish painter