Yesterday during Eucharist the choir sang a hymn called “Jerusalem.” I commented afterwards how much I enjoyed the melody and that I recognized it as the hymn the boy’s choir sings at the end of the movie “Chariots of Fire.” It caused me to wonder if the hymn had a story of its own. So today I did a little research and indeed it does. Now my apologies to my many friends who will know a great deal more about the hymn, but briefly It is one of England’s best loved hymns. The words of the hymn are a poem by William Blake, which starts: “And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green?”
The verses, written in 1804 as a preface to Blake’s epic poem Milton a Poem, are said to be based on a legend that Jesus Christ came to England as a young boy and visited the Somerset town of Glastonbury. It is linked to a section in the Book of Revelation describing a Second Coming in which Jesus establishes a new Jerusalem.
The idea of Jerusalem is often used as a metaphor for Heaven by the Church of England. Though interpretations of the poem differ, it is often seen as suggesting that Jesus briefly created heaven in England and that we should strive to re-establish this once more. The reference to “dark Satanic mills” is usually thought to allude to the early industrial revolution and the damage it wreaked on nature and the poorest sections of society.
The words were set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916, as an anthem for the suffragettes’ movement. The hymn recently was banned by Southwark Cathedral as being unchristian and too nationalistic. The parish church of Parliament, St Margaret’s in Westminster, has excluded it from services in the past on the grounds that the “dark satanic mills” discriminated against city-dwellers. For much of the 1990s it was banned by St Paul’s Cathedral but the church has now relented.
I could go on and on about the hymn and its story such as the sources for Blake’s poem, Sir Parry, etc., but what struck me, the more I researched, was that everything and everyone has a story, and an interesting one at that. I just finished Russo’s Bridge of Sighs. It is a story about a family in a small town in upper New York and ordinary people who spend their whole life in the same town. Yet each character has a story. Each life is unique, interesting, and full in its own way. I think we overlook this aspect about others and ourselves a lot. Everyone has a story which contains the beauty of a hymn and the fascinating images described in lyrics. We all are part of an epic poem, we just have to play it out.
Your friend, Webb
I love this hymn as well but never knew the story and especially the suffragist connection. I enjoy watching for other Parry hymns during church. Thanks for the research!
Great to hear from you. Webb