All Saint’s Day

A major problem with writing a column on a controversial election day has meant any other research gets blown away by media, conversations, and interruptions. By the time readers have the newspaper in their hands, results from the elections may have settled, and we hope that neighbors, friends, and relatives fighting the dreaded virus are well on their way to recovery.

One of the interruptions today was a phone call from Terrina Wilkes and her husband, Doug, from British Columbia who visited Cavalier County and the Morden area three or four years ago and had talked of returning this fall until the pandemic changed travel plans. Their first visit was to locate the grave of a great-grandmother who died in a blizzard in the 1890s. In the process, they met people they enjoyed and have tried to keep in touch with ever since. They asked me to relay their greetings to friends in our area.

This week’s column grew out of an uncaught error in the column on Halloween when I confused the number of the Pope (Gregory IV) with the year which put the story into the fourth century instead of the eighth—off by four centuries. Halloween did grow out of All Hallow’s Eve which was the night before All Saint’s Day, but the circumstances for making this a religious holiday were somewhat different. Construction had begun several years earlier on a chapel in St. Peter’s Cathedral that would honor the early martyrs of the church. Some of the martyrs whose names were known had already been named as saints and had special days when faithful church members prayed for them. Others were unknown although they also had a part in the growth and history of the early church. Under the heading Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Day, this special day would honor both groups. The date of the dedication was November 1. While the celebration was in Rome, church members in other parts of Europe were asked to decorate the graves of people they knew and wanted to honor as well.

When protestant denominations separated from the Roman Catholic Church, many of the historic customs and days continued to be part of the church calendars in the new denominations. All Saint’s Day was one of those observances. It is celebrated by decorating graves of family members in various parts of Europe. It has long been a remembrance day with a variety of customs in various denominations and nations. While the calendar date may vary, it is treated as a religious holiday with stores closed, no school etc. in Great Britain, Italy and France. Immigrants to Canada, Australia, the United States, and some former British colonies brought the traditions with them and today include this day in their church calendars as a memorial to family members.

The main religious observation in America includes both stories of the familiar saints from long ago as well as remembering family members. Some congregations name their churches after saints, and we are all familiar with the ones in our part of North Dakota who have done that: St. Alphonsus at Langdon, St. Mary’s at Munich, St. Boniface in Walhalla, St. Joseph’s in Leroy and Devils Lake, St. Michael’s at Wales, St. Bridget’s at Cavalier, St. Edward’s at Nekoma (actually named for the oldest member of the congregation) and others. Since music, especially music composed for religious holidays, is considered ecumenical, many of the local churches used music this last Sunday written with All Saints Day in mind. Groups who had in-person worship that day probably sang “For All the Saints”, and several may have sung “I Sing the Song of the Saints of God”. That last song is newer and has an interesting story behind it.

Lesbia Lesley Locket was the youngest of several daughters born to an Anglican family in 1898. One story of her life says her father, George Cooper Locket, was an Anglican pastor, and another version says she married a Royal Navy officer, John Scott, who served in both world wars and appears to have been a vicar in the Church of England either between wars or after his military retirement. She was the mother of three small children and a talented musician so the children often asked “mum” to write them a song about a picnic or a game they were playing. She was also interested in drama so began at an early age writing plays that could be used in church. In the 1920s she wrote a series of hymns for children that would teach them about religious holidays, doing both the lyrics and the music. Her songs, along with her own artwork, were published in 1929 under the title “Everyday Hymns for Little Children”. The only hymn that survives from that collection is “I Sing the Song of the Saints of God”. Along with copies of her original artwork, you can purchase the book at prices ranging from about $10 to many times that amount plus tax and shipping. Be forewarned that the current book came out quite a few years after her death in 1986.

In 1940 the Episcopal and Anglican branches of that church in America and Canada put out a new hymnal and included this hymn. The original tune had been replaced by the tune “Grand Isle” written by a retired Anglican priest living in Vermont, but the original words were used. The tune was catchy and lively, and it told the story of Saints of God who were patient and brave and true. “One was a soldier, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green…….” Theologians and musicians dissected the song as having little spiritual value, but children growing up loved it and would later include it in their all-time lists of favorite songs.

Fast forward to the 1950s and after. Everyone had radio. Many had record players, and sacred or secular musicians enjoyed making records of hymns which sold well. However, depending on the church you attended, the name on the hymnals remained what it had always been. For example, when World Day of Prayer met annually in Langdon, the hymns listed in the program had different names so the ladies carried boxes of books from church to church so the titles of the hymns matched the ones in the programs printed nationally not realizing the same song with a different title was in most of the hymnals in the church hosting that year. Some hymns were in the public domain, but others were covered by copyright laws so the individual denominations could change the key the song was written in, arrange the verses differently, and copyright the song as a new hymn while adapting to copyright laws. When the former Methodist Church and the former Evangelical United Brethren merged in 1968, the two churches in Langdon continued to use their previous denominational hymnals. More than 20 years later the denomination decided to produce a new inclusive hymnal. Meanwhile, several denominations in Canada which had become United Church of Canada were also a part of the mix, and with churches worldwide there would be Korean, African and Hispanic editions of the same hymns.. All branches wanted their own favorite hymns, of course, and one of the hymns suggested was Mrs. Scott’s “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.”

The new Methodist hymnal came out in 1989, and a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church followed in 1990. Both contain this hymn, and the congregations have enjoyed singing it ever since, but the lyrics are not the same! Carlton Young, who has done musical arrangements for many books of church music, was a leader on the United Methodist hymnal and thought the original lyrics were too dated, so he changed the third verse. No longer would it read that you could meet saints of God “….in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church or on trains, in shops or at tea……” Anglicans and other denominations were shocked. The Presbyterian Church reverted to the original lyrics in their hymnal which came out the following year, and in their more recent hymnal, whichever version you may sing. I suspect with a change in title it may also be in Lutheran, Catholic and other denominational hymnals; the message Mrs. Scott had for her own children is still there: there are saints of old and saints among us today. The original lyrics end with “and I mean to be one, too!” If you would like to read more about the story, I can recommend the website Anglicans Online.


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