(Lyrics are available here.)
Call me old fashioned, but if a number one hit holiday album can't reference death (4 times) and imprisonment (twice), then it just doesn't feel festive.
But seriously, this was a hymn we would occasionally pull out - usually around Father's Day - and plod through lugubriously in order to honor the fathers in the congregation. I was actually surprised to find it on a Christmas album, because it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the birth of Christ. Then again, this was recorded in an era when doctors said smoking was good for you, so there's that.
The lesson I took away from this song when I was a kid was probably not the lesson intended by the "fathers" of the church. (Which faith? Depends on which fathers...) As we gloomily intoned verses about our fathers chained in prisons dark, we were living in the salad days of Reagan's "shining city on a hill," waking up from the Baby Boom years. For all of the references to "dungeon, fire, and sword," it occurred to me that this song didn't really apply to my family:
Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,Millenials probably recognize that notion - "you kids don't know how good ya got it, do ya?" But since my father hadn't suffered any of the things in the song, the message clearly wasn't directed at me. If anything, these words seemed to be directed at my father - "look at the sacrifices of those who came before," it sang. Not that I don't appreciate my father, but the most gruesome ordeal he had to put up with was me. That hardly fits the sentiment of the song.
Were still in heart and conscience free
How sweet would be their children's fate
If they, like them, could die for thee
I could almost see my grandfather, who had served in World War II, shaking his head at the relatively painless brush with Army life my dad had endured and putting that generational guilt trip on him. Of course, I've since learned that both of my grandfathers had relatively safe tours in their war, compared to what their Civil War grandfathers endured - so maybe this song was meant to put the guilt trip on them by their fathers... and so on, back to a time when Christians actually were persecuted for their faith. (Which raises the uncomfortable point that the worst persecutors of Christians on this continent were other Christians.)
Even at that age, though, this idea started to smell at bit off. For one thing, even though the American Revolution was painted as a war fought for freedom - particularly freedom from the state religion of England - that wasn't really the point of that war. If anything, you could make more of a case that the Revolution set the stage for our secular Constitution, which is something we quarrel about to this day.
The one takeaway from this song that I really could get behind, then as now, was this verse:
Faith of our fathers, we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife;
And preach Thee, too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life.
This idea gets a bit broken up by the rhyme scheme, but I read it as a statement of what the "faith of our fathers" is supposed to be, and I actually quite like it. If I may take the liberty of restating that verse:
"We will love both friend and foe as we all struggle along, and demonstrate our values 'as love knows how' - through being kind and true to our principles."
Call me a sucker for festive holiday tunes, but that speaks to this secular humanist. I won't be pulling this one out to sing around the tree, but at least with that interpretation, I can live with it.
But you can keep the guilt trips and the torture for another holiday.