Friday, October 15, 2010

Going in Peace

Like many UU congregations, for years we have been singing our children off to RE classes with the Natalie Sleeth song "Go Now In Peace", a tradition that has recently been questioned because, like many UU congregations, we substitute the words "spirit of Love" for the phrase "Love of God" in one line of the ditty. It seems like an innocent substitution and one that seems completely in line with the generally accepted tendency of human beings to modify or redefine words that don't fit one's theological or social views.

However, once we learned that Ms. Sleeth and her heirs have requested that the song be sung in its original version ("Go now in peace, go now in peace, may the love of God surround you, everywhere, everywhere you may go"), we had a dilemma on our hands. Should we honor the request of the composer and her heirs or should we rely on the so-called "folk process" to justify the change we'd made?

A couple of years ago, we tried substituting a beautiful short song by a UU composer but it just didn't catch on. There was something about that old "Go now in peace" melody and words that just wouldn't be set aside, so we went back to singing it again and shoving our nagging sense of artistic disrespect underground.

Well, it's surfaced again and on the 24th of October, the next time I am in the pulpit, I have a plan. I've warned the worship leader and checked it out with our administrator, who is feeling as uneasy about the situation as I am, and that day, before we start singing it, I am going to say something like this, perhaps after asking folks to open their hymnals to page 413:

"Because the composer of this beloved little song, Natalie Sleeth and her family, has asked congregations to sing the original words, not substituting the word "love" for the word "God" in the song, I am going to sing those original words from now on. I invite you to sing the correct words with me, if you are willing and able, out of respect for the artist's original composition. If you can't, well, nobody's going to be taking names. But if most of us can't do that, we'll find another song, out of respect for the composer. Now let's sing our children off to their classes."

I don't know if this will be well-received or not. Chances are most folks in the congregation will sing the original words; I certainly don't find them offensive, just a little limiting. There will definitely be those who continue to sing the words they're used to and I have no objection to that. There will be no police action! And I think that will satisfy my own sense of obligation to Ms. Sleeth and her family. It certainly will be easier than finding a new song! I'll keep you posted.

This ministry life is so interesting! And they pay me to do this....will wonders never cease?


goodwolve said...

As I have said elsewhere, I hate this song... well hate is strong, but it just sounds so "get the hell out of here little people and their teachers who do not belong in proper worship with us the adults". It isn't personal, but it feels like such a get out of here moment. Not sure ANY song would be good for this. - J

Tom said...

I investigated this story a couple of years ago and could not find evidence that most of it is true.

It appears that at the time the UUA was preparing the Gray hymnal they wrote to Ms. Sleeth's publishing house asking for permission to change the words in print. This permission was denied.

At the time Sleeth herself was either dead or seriously ill. (She died in 1992 after a long illness.) I don't know if she was personally involved in the decision. In any case, it is perfectly normal for writers to oppose other people changing their words in published versions of their work. I know of no evidence that Sleeth ever objected to our singing whatever we want. Indeed I know of no evidence that Sleeth ever knew we existed.

You refer to Sleeth's "family". Who is that? I believe her kids, Molly and David, are still alive, but I can't find any evidence they care about what we sing.

In any case, why do we care about the opiniions of her descendents and not the opinions of the descendents of, say, Isaac Watts or John Calvin? What moral principle is involved here?

My take is that this whole thing has been manufactured, probably by someone who finds the UU "God" allergy annoying. I like God too, but I don't think it is right to lie to the congregation.

But maybe you have found something we couldn't find. How do you know the story is true?

LinguistFriend said...

The idea of "Go now in peace" is an important one", I think. In visiting a Lutheran congregation recently, I enjoyed the fact that they used the "Peace be with you" greeting, which is shared with Jewish and Islamic and earlier Christian groups. Peace (whatever interpretation one may make of it), is wished for both children and adults, and for members of other religious movements. The song expresses the wish of peace for them whether they participate in a UU formal service or not.

ms. kitty said...

You raise interesting points, Tom. I'm wondering what resources you used to investigate this story. I heard it from our district Program Consultant and also from our District Trustee. Can you say more about what you looked at in order to verify the story?

Tom said...

Ms. Kitty,

This came up at our church about 4 years ago. I started investigating by googling "Natalie Sleeth". When I realized she died 2 years before the gray hymnal was published, I became suspicious. More googling revealed that she was an important author in the Methodist tradition. I couldn't find any evidence that she ever showed any awareness of UUs.

I did find a lot of UU handwringing, but it was all hearsay. Nobody ever claimed, for example, to have seen a letter from her family complaining about anything.

So, knowing how radioactive the word "God" is in UU circles, I guessed this was probably an urban legend.

Anyway, once our RE committee realized that Sleeth had died a long time ago, they decided this wasn't a problem. (Legally, of course, we can sing anything we want in a service. We are totally exempt from copyright rules.)

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, Tom, I appreciate your input. I'm going to ask around and see where our official leaders got this message.

Anonymous said...

This was quite an interesting topic, thanks for covering it here and in your follow-up post. It really makes one think. I recall attending a UU church in Southern California one morning, and when I opened their hymnal to sing "Go Now in Peace" I discovered they had literally crossed out God with a pen and written "spirit of love" above the line. Immediately, I understood that my liberal UU theology was unwelcome at that church, and never returned. I think if the Sleeth estate heard about that practice, they'd probably be upset.

ms. kitty said...

Anon, I'll bet if the minister knew that had happened in a hymnal, s/he would have taken steps to address it. I'd be interested in learning whether it was just in one (or a few) hymnals, or if it had been changed in all of them. Do you know?

Anonymous said...

It was in all the hymnals. I discussed, politely, my disappointment with the minister after the service. I'd gone to the church because my first child had just been born the previous day and I felt a need to thank God and seek God's blessing on our little family. Since I grew up UU naturally the church was where I went to do that, but when I saw that my UUism wasn't wanted I left somewhat disheartened and thereafter attended a different (non-UU) religious establishment in the same city.

ms. kitty said...

I'm so sorry, Anon. It shouldn't have been done. It was not only unethical, it was technically illegal, I think.

Dan Harper said...

@goodwolve -- A few years ago at Ferry Beach, the Universalist conference center in Maine, some kids told me they didn't like this song, because it felt like they were being kicked out. So they made up alternate words: "Go now eat peas, macaroni and cheese..." -- alas, I forget the rest of it.

Anyway, because of what those kids told me, now I find I can't use this song when I'm leading worship. Too bad, because it's a good song.