History of Hymns: New Zealand composer bases best-known song on call to servanthood

“The Servant Song”
Richard Gillard
The Faith We Sing, No. 2222

Brother, sister, let me serve you,
let me be as Christ to you;
pray that I may have the grace to
let you be my servant , too.*

 

Richard Gillard (b. 1953) was born in England and brought at age 3 to New Zealand, where he has lived since on the northern island. His faith background is a mixture of the Anglican Church on his mother’s side and the Pentecostal Church on his father’s side of the family.

Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate (1916-1999) spoke of Mr. Gillard’s musical background: “[He] has had little systematic musical training, but from the age of seven began the ukulele and other such instruments, often to accompany his own singing, learning by experiment and later with the help of his father and of Pentecostal church musicians. He usually invokes the aid of ‘the experts’ to set out his songs on paper.”

C. Michael Hawn

C. Michael Hawn

Attending a teacher’s training college, he worked until 1975 as a teacher in primary schools and then in a warehouse. A member with his wife for many years at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in central Auckland, they were inspired by an early folk-praise group called the Fisherfolk originally from Houston, Texas.

Mr. Gillard solidified his compositional style by participating in the St. Paul’s Singers, a group of mostly young students. Taken with this style, the Gillards introduced many folksongs to New Zealand congregations. Mr. Gillard began writing his own songs in the late 1970s.

Milgate offered this account of the origins of Mr. Gillard’s best-known composition, “The Servant Song”: “[The song] began in 1977 when Richard Gillard jotted down v. 3 on a piece of paper which, on returning from travels in Britain, Europe and Israel, he found in his guitar-case. He completed the song, the original first line of vv. 1 and 6 being ‘Brother, let me be your servant.’”

Since then, the text has been altered to be more inclusive. The song was first recorded in New Zealand and has been sung around the world, appearing in many hymnals.

Matthew 20:26b-28 provides the primary scriptural background for the song: “. . . Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (NIV)

Stanza two speaks of “pilgrims” on a “journey” and encourages us to “walk the mile and bear the load,” reminiscent perhaps of Matthew 5:41: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”

Stanza three speaks of “hold[ing] the Christ-light . . . in the night-time of your fear.” We are called to reflect Christ’s light in the world. Several passages come to mind including Matthew 5:14 and, of course, many passages in John including John 1:4-5; 3:19; 8:12; 9:5.

Stanza four is one of empathy—weeping, laughing and sharing together. One is reminded of I Corinthians 12 in general, but perhaps especially verse 26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (NIV)

Stanza five provides an eschatological perspective, as “we sing to God in heaven.” The joy of making “harmony” together offsets the “agony” of all that suffering on earth.

The simple step-wise melody composed by Mr. Gillard is very hymnlike and highlights the prayerful nature of the text.

*© 1977 Scripture in Song, a division of Integrity Music, Inc. Used by Permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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