History of Hymns: “In the Bulb There Is a Flower”

by C. Michael Hawn

"In the Bulb there is a Flower"
Natalie Sleeth
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 707

Natalie Sleeth

In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.*

From time to time, a choral anthem inspires a hymn. "Hymn of Promise" was first conceived as an anthem in 1985, performed at the Pasadena Community Church, St. Petersburg, Florida, during a festival concert on Natalie Sleeth's music. Long known as a composer of anthems, especially for children, Natalie Sleeth (1930-1992) contributed one of the favorite new hymns to The United Methodist Hymnal.

Sleeth was as native of Evanston, Illinois. She began piano study at the age of four and gained much of her musical experience by singing in choral ensembles during her earlier years. Studying music theory, piano, and organ at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, she received her B.A. in 1952.

Married to Ronald E. Sleeth, a United Methodist clergyman and professor of homiletics at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, she served as music secretary at Highland Park United Methodist Church from 1969-1976. During this time, she studied music theory with Jane Marshall and audited a course in choral arranging taught by Lloyd Pfautsch at SMU. Choristers Guild published her first anthem, "Canon of Praise," in 1969, the highest selling anthem in the history of this publisher. Her choral works for all ages number more than 200.

Sleeth received honorary doctorates from West Virginia Wesleyan College (1989), and Nebraska Wesleyan College (1990). Some of her compositions are described in her devotional book, Adventures for the Soul (1987).

Sleeth had the ability to compose both texts and music. Though "Hymn of Promise" has become a favorite hymn for funerals, it was written at a time when the author states that she was "pondering the ideas of life, death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter, and the whole reawakening of the world that happens every spring." Inspired by a T.S. Eliot line, the germ of the hymn grew from the idea "in our end is our beginning," the phase that begins the third stanza of the hymn.

While it carries the promise of spring and the hope of Easter in its beautiful metaphors, it is a very appropriate hymn for funeral and memorial services. Shortly after its composition, the composer’s husband was diagnosed with what turned out to be a terminal malignancy. Ronald Sleeth requested that "Hymn of Promise" be sung at his funeral service.

A wonderful child-like simplicity permeates "Hymn of Promise." Natalie Sleeth had a gift for composing texts on complex theological ideas that were still accessible to children. Her melodies seemed totally natural and therefore effortless for people to learn. "Hymn of Promise" is one of the most memorable hymns written by an American United Methodist in the last part of the twentieth century, and it promises to be sung for many years to come.

Composer R. G. Huff, who attended her funeral in Denver, Colorado, describes her impact on him in Worship Matrix, an online hymnal companion for the hymnal Celebrating Grace (2010): "In March 1992, I attended the memorial service of Natalie Sleeth at Wellshire Presbyterian Church in Denver, across the street from the church I served there. I had been a pen-pal of sorts with her for several years and wanted to be there for the celebration of her contribution to church music, especially the music of children.

"For a full hour before the funeral, the church’s choir, soloists and organist performed her songs, hymns and anthems. It was a great tribute to her writing legacy. Of course, this was one of the songs we heard that day . . ..

"Like the theologian she was, Natalie Sleeth moved on to worship: songs rising from silence, words seeking melodies, darkness becoming light, hope becoming evident in future days.

"Finally – and this relates to the afternoon in March 1992 – she expressed how life moves into death, death gives way to eternity, and ultimate victory comes for those whose doubt has evolved into belief."

 

* © 1986 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

Categories: History of Hymns

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