Save the People

When wilt thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
Not kings and lords, but nations!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of thy heart, O God, are they;
Let them not pass, like weeds, away,
Their heritage a sunless day.
God save the people!

Shall crime bring crime for ever,
Strength aiding still the strong?
Is it thy will, O Father,
That man shall toil for wrong?
‘No,’ say thy mountains; ‘No,’ thy skies;
Man’s clouded sun shall brightly rise,
And songs be heard instead of sighs;
God save the people!

When wilt thou save the people?
O God of mercy, when?
The people, Lord, the people,
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
God save the people; thine they are,
Thy children, as thy angels fair;
From vice, oppression, and despair,
God save the people!

Ebenezer Elliott, “The People’s Anthem
(first appeared in Edinburgh Review, 1848) 

Elliott was an iron merchant, factory owner, and poet who fought the Corn Laws under the banner of defending the starving poor. The refrain of this poem parodies the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen,” and grew extremely popular among the middle and lower classes in Britain. It now survives in some hymnals, but mostly in the musical Godspell (1971), where it is titled “Save the People.”

I first heard it when I was working on our freshman-year production of Godspell in 2009, and I’ve returned to it often since. Whenever the news is dreary, or I am, I find myself singing this song. I always liked that this is a solo by Jesus in the musical. He pleads for salvation, and then of course, he goes and becomes what he’s just led the people to ask for. The song’s history is new to me, though, and I keep coming back to the part of the poem that forms the petition: “From vice, oppression, and despair, God save the people.” The petitions at Mass could just be that line six times. Save us from ourselves, from each other, and from the powers of hell. You are faithful and you will do it.

It’s not a coincidence, to me, that this lament lives on in a musical. Musicals are melodramatic much of the time, they have an emotional resonance every once in a while, at the extremes of life, but they seem over-the-top to most people most of the time. We don’t belt “God save the people,” we tweet “lol nothing matters.” But I think we need this right now. I think we need to give ourselves permission to feel whatever it is we feel, and to feel it loudly, and in the high-stakes key of an old dead hymn.

At various moments throughout his life, Elliott was starving and hopeless, suicidal and depressed. This song was written to plead a political injustice, but it’s about such a deeper swath of emotions. Save us from the vices that made us suffer. Save us from the oppression that keeps us suffering. Save us from the despair that vows to make us believe we deserve this. A lot of us right now are tempted to feel that all our ills are political, or principally so. That if things had gone a different way last fall, we’d be fine. And of course this slashes credibility, so we start to feel like we’re exaggerating. Let’s get this straight, friends: Elliott wasn’t just railing against the Corn Laws. He was mad at God. You said you’re going to save us; okay, but when? We did what you said, we prayed thy will be done; can this possibly be your will?

Let’s get this straight, friends: sometimes you need to shout about how it seems like strength is only ever directed to aid the already strong. Sometimes you need to address O God of mercy in an accusatory tone, because you want to make sure he’s got his title right. And they’ll put it in a hymnal because that’s what we do. And Christ will sing it with you.

Published by Catherine Addington

I am a translator from Spanish to English and a writer on saints, myths, and icons in both religious and secular contexts.

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