Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Brief History of "Morning Has Broken"

[Originally written in an email to some seminarian friends who were interested.]


Here are the details on the hymn "Morning Has Broken" that I said I would look up for you.

The hymn melody "BUNESSAN" comes from a village on the Scottish island of Mull. Mary Macdougal Macdonald (1789-1872), who was born near Bunessan, a composer, and was the daughter of a Baptist cleric, wrote Gaelic lyrics for a Christmas carol using a local traditional tune, which would be the original melody that would eventually become what we now have.

Lachlan Macbean (also McBean), another composer, translated Macdonald's hymn from Gaelic to English (it's called "Child in the Manger") and published it in a Scottish hymnal in 1888, called Songs and Hymns of the Gael.

The English author Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965), who was relatively well established during her literary career, was asked by the Anglican priest and composer Percy Dearmer to write a "poem to fit the lovely Scottish tune" because there was need for a children's thanksgiving hymn suitable for each day of the year. The melody had been discovered in Macbean's hymnal, and Dearmer, along with a few others, including the noted Ralph Vaughn Williams, were compiling a new hymnal to supplement the popular English Hymnal (1906) used in Anglican churches. This new hymnal, the editors hoped, would be popular for "Low Church" services and especially among children (Farjeon wrote poetry and literature for children as well, which was probably why she was asked to collaborate on the hymn). This new hymnal was published as Songs of Praise (1925), which quickly became popular and well used, but the actual hymn with the text "Morning Has Broken" and the Gaelic tune would not appear until the second edition in 1931. The hymn itself was written for children.

English (i.e. British) Roman Catholic hymnals shortly after used the tune for some alternative lyrics from popular hymns by the well-known Anglican composer Charles Stanford. Eventually the Scottish Jesuit James Quinn would write "This day God gives me," inspired by Charles Stanford's famous arrangement of the St. Patrick's Breastplate in a hymn called "I bind unto myself today" (

As an aside, Farjeon became a Catholic in 1951.

The song "Morning Has Broken" became popularized in society when the folk singer Cat Stevens did a rendition in the early '70s. Since then the song has been unfortunately associated with the hippy culture and has become interpreted in a blandly pluralistic way (as evidenced in some of the comments of this video of Stevens's rendition:; Stevens would shortly afterwards infamously become a Muslim, named Yusuf Islam), but originally it appeared in a relatively reverent context (Low Church services, especially used for children, and soon after found suitable for adoption by Catholic hymnals). Here's a nice performance of the piece:

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