From Greenland’s Icy Mountains

Revd Dr Donald MacEwan

29 April 2018

Readings: Psalm 22:25-31; Acts 8:26-40

Hymn-books change. New hymns are written and published; old hymns disappear.  Sometimes what disappears is intriguing.  From Greenland’s Icy Mountains was at one time a hugely popular hymn about foreign missions.  One Saturday in 1819, the hymn-writer Reginald Heber was staying with his father-in-law, a vicar in Wales.  The following day there was to be a special collection in church for foreign missions, and so the vicar Dr Shipley asked his son-in-law to write a suitable hymn to be sung.  20 minutes later, it was done.  They loved singing it the following day and within a year or so thousands of copies had been printed.  The hymn-book used in my church when I was born still had it.  Here’s the first verse:

From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain.

It speaks with supreme confidence of Christianity’s truth and the error of other religions.  The second verse asserts that

The heathen in his blindness
Bows down to wood and stone.

Perhaps that is slightly better than Heber’s original manuscript which shows that he wrote:

The savage in his blindness
Bows down to wood and stone.

The 19th and early 20th Centuries were a time of massive missionary activity, particularly by Protestant Churches in Africa and Asia, though I don’t think many Victorian missionaries found their way to Greenland.  Indeed Denmark did not allow missions to Greenland until the 1950s.  But back in Victorian times, missionaries, many of whom came from Scotland, were famous, including David Livingstone and Mary Slessor. My own Great-Uncle Harry served as a missionary in China just over a hundred years ago.  Today, the church in Africa and Asia is growing, partly as the outworking of that early missionary endeavour, and indeed missionaries from Afric’s sunny fountains have come to Britain over recent years, perhaps to deliver us savages from error’s chains.

Why have Christians felt the need to spread their faith, to convert others to Christianity?  Of course a full answer to that would reflect on politics, power and colonial activity, from the Spanish in the Americas, to the British in Africa.  But at least part of the answer comes from the faith itself – as a faithful response to God’s revelation, God’s offer of salvation.

In the Old Testament we see the development of the idea of God from a local, even tribal deity, with a name too holy to be said, who protected and promoted a particular people, Israel, the Hebrews.  But over time, the Hebrews came to see that their God was not for them alone, but for all peoples, no longer local but universal.  We sense this understanding in Psalm 22 which we heard earlier.

27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.

A universal devotion, and also a global reign:

28 For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.

Indeed, for the psalmist, this universal rule extends to the realm of the dead and into the future.

The Christian faith inherited this trust in God as universal, whose love, whose forgiveness offered in Jesus, whose Holy Spirit is offered to all people of every nation and every race.  Indeed, the risen Jesus’ closing words to his disciples, according to Matthew are “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  They are given a commission, and the rest of the New Testament, especially the book of Acts shows Jesus’ followers doing their best to fulfil this instruction – in Jerusalem, the rest of Israel, across to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), to Greece, to Rome and beyond.  Our New Testament reading gives a memorable example of this.  Philip, a disciple, shares his faith that Jesus is the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes and Isaiah’s prophecy. His Ethiopian Jewish conversation partner is glad to have received this message, believes and is baptised.  The implication is that the Christian faith will reach Ethiopia through him.  It’s worth mentioning that the high-minded Victorian missionaries, heading for Africa’s palmy plains, rarely reflected that Ethiopia had been a devoutly Christian country for longer than Great Britain.

So Christianity, from its first days, has been a missionary religion – it was missionaries called Ninian and Columba who first brought the faith to Scotland.  They were evangelists, who shared the good news.  They believed that their lives were the better for their faith, and they wanted the heathen Picts to enjoy its benefits too.  As one Asian Christian has said – evangelism is one beggar showing another beggar where he found food.

Yet we do not sing From Greenland’s icy mountains any more.  And I think that’s right.  We feel uncomfortable at that sense of superiority, certainly religious and cultural, and probably racial too.  Let me suggest something of my own journey on these questions.

As an undergraduate student in Aberdeen, I believed strongly in foreign missions.  A friend of mine was serving in Thailand as a missionary.  I led a prayer-group which met weekly to pray for the church and missionaries in South East Asia.  When I graduated I worked for two years in Japan, not as a missionary, but I suppose with a sense, initially, that I should be ready to share my faith.  But during these years I began to question the need for the Japanese to convert.  Sometimes Buddhist, sometimes Shinto, often unreligious, Japanese people seemed no better and no worse than my fellow-Britons, Christianised for a millennium and a half.  And when I went to Buddhist temples, in their beauty, simplicity, integration with nature, I found I was able to pray.  God seemed closer to me, in these Buddhist places.

Ever since then, I have tried to be open to interfaith encounter, through travel, through interfaith events, through friendships, through my work as Chaplain, supporting students and staff of all faiths and philosophies of life, even into such savage environments as the Bop on Friday night.  Which was great.  And I have become less and less comfortable with the language of error, of heathen, of blindness.  But I am a Christian – so how do I think my faith relates to other faiths?

Well, I believe that the Christian faith is true.  I believe that it expresses deep convictions which at least approach the deepest reality: God, creation, redemption, relationship, love, hope.  I do not believe that Christian expression of faith in God, Jesus, the Spirit is the last word.  In expressing faith in God, we must accept God as mystery – any approach which denies mystery to God basically turns God into a creature.  But I believe that the fundamental Christian convictions express better than any other religious expressions the nature of ultimate reality and creaturely relationship with that reality.

What then of other religions?  If I believe the Christian faith is true, does than imply that I believe that other religions are false?  No – I don’t see things in such black and white terms.  I believe that other religions also participate in the truth.  Many religions, for example, understand the ultimate reality to be a spiritual presence, in relationship with creation.  Many religions see the existence of the universe as depending on a creator beyond the universe, not subject to what is made.  In many religions there is a recognition of how creaturely life, especially human life, is imperfect, with moral failure and suffering, and a trust that there can be rescue from such failure, and such suffering.  In many if not all religions, there are practices of prayer, meditation and worship in which we believe we encounter ultimate reality.  As part of that relationship to creator, redeemer and presence, we are encouraged to love others, to be reconciled to others.  And in many though not all religions, there is a trust that the future – of the universe, and of individual human beings – is within the purposes of ultimate reality.

Yes, I trust in Jesus as the Son of God, whose life, death and resurrection are the heart of my faith, and hope for the future.  But in the prayer, meditation and worship which I’ve witnessed, though it be different from my own, I believe that people do encounter the true and living God, who is merciful to all.  And I’m in good company.  Desmond Tutu, retired South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, wrote this:

God is clearly not a Christian.  His concern is for all his children… That Christians do not have a monopoly on God is an almost trite observation.

In a moment we’ll sing Hymn 713 Come, all who look to God today.  I suggest you look it up.  I doubt it could have been written in 1819 in a South Wales vicarage any more than From Greenland’s Icy Mountains could be written in St Andrews today.  And maybe it will not last any better.  But it speaks powerfully of faith today, of being open to different traditions, rites and creeds, finding shared truth in them, trusting in God who is beyond our individual expressions, and who draws us into peace, the people of God’s beloved creation from Greenland’s icy mountains to St Andrews’ sandy shore.