Once More! Our God Vouchsafe to Shine

Words by Samuel Sewall; to the tune of “The Ten Commandments,” 1701

This song was composed for the first day of 1701, so it contains clues about what hopes white colonizers had for the new century. It uses symbols and some older words, so it may take a little bit of decoding. Try to put the first verse in your own words. Look up unfamiliar words if you need to.

What two main symbols and metaphors does Sewall use in this hymn? Light, vision, darkness; vine, fruit.

Point out all the places he uses variations of “darkness.” “This dark night,” “Veil,” give them “eyes to see.” What was “darkness” to him? Life without Christianity. What is he praying for in each case? For light to chase away the dark, so they will see Christ. How was this to happen? Through the expansion of English settlement.

What is the “vine” a metaphor for? British Empire. Let’s take it line by line: What does “transplanted” mean? Colonized over the Atlantic. “Spread further”? Continued settlement. “Prune it”? “Fruit”? More Christian converts.

What does this song tell us about Sewall’s views of race?  

If Sewall had been alive at the close of the century in 1800, what do you think he would he have thought about the United States? What parts of his prayer were answered by then? The English vine had spread nearly across the continent; many Native Americans were converted. What parts would he feel were unanswered? What would he think about America today?

“Once More! Our God Vouchsafe to Shine” performed by David and Ginger Hildebrand. All rights reserved. © 2004.

Although it can be sung to a variety of different tunes with similar meter, here it is sung to a tune from the Bay Psalm Book. The female voice sings the tune without accompaniment while the male adds harmony. Depending on their musical skills, this may be how early performers sang it, too.

View the music and lyrics for this song.

John Smibert's 1739 portrait of Samuel Sewall

Portrait of Samuel Sewall by John Smibert, 1729.

Samuel Sewall (1652–1730) was a prominent citizen of Boston who maintained a diary from 1673 until shortly before his death. His diary (The Diary of Samuel Sewall, edited by M. Halsey Thomas, New York: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1973) provides such detailed information that it is often used by historians to learn about daily life in the colonies. Sewall was one of the three judges in the Salem witchcraft trials. He later renounced his role in that tragedy and in 1697 made a public apology. Perhaps the first outspoken abolitionist in the colonies, in 1700 Sewall published The Selling of Joseph,in which he argued against the Biblical theories used to support enslavement.

Although Sewall opposed enslavement, he believed in the superiority of white British men. This is apparent in “Once More! Our God Vouchsafe to Shine,” a song about his hopes for the expansion of the British Empire and the conversion of Native Americans, whom he refers to as “poor Indians” and implies practice “false religions.” On January 1, 1701, Sewall noted in his diary that he wrote the text to this song “a little before Break-a-Day, at Boston of the Massachusetts.” He wrote and presented it in honor of the arrival of the new century, which was accompanied by a loud blast of trumpets on Boston Common.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller.

husbandman: Farmer.

clime: Climate.

Write a text that can be sung to the same tune that expresses your hopes for the 21st century.

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