By Jane M. Gardner
In the season of Pentecost, when worship planners look for a hymn to convey deep spiritual longing with musical, soul-moving sound, they often choose, “Touch Me, Lord, with Thy Spirit Eternal.”
Arguably one of the most popular and meaningful new hymns that emerged from Hymns of the Saints, published in 1981, this song has found a place in our hearts. In the intervening years, the text has been translated into French and Spanish, and the hymn is listed as part of the Core Repertoire in Community of Christ Sings (2013). It is sung around the world.
The author, Don C. Rawson, was born in Michigan and moved to Missouri as a youth. He attended Graceland College and the University of Kansas, and then spent two years in Europe, where he became particularly interested in the Soviet Union. This led him to complete a doctorate in Russian history at the University of Washington. In 1968 he joined the history faculty at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, and made several trips to the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.
How did this hymn—a Russian melody arranged by Alexander Efimov—from the Russian Evangelical Christian tradition make its way to the 1981 Hymn Selection Committee? In 2020 correspondence with Rawson, from Loveland, Colorado, USA, he shared this account journey:
In the late 1970s, the Reorganized Church sponsored several regional workshops directed at bringing to the Church membership a greater understanding of particular parts of the world where the Church might pursue missionary activity. At the workshop I attended, I joined the group studying the Soviet Union, since I taught Russian history at Iowa State University and had a particular interest in Russian religion. After the workshop our group met periodically. We found persons fluent in Russian, who translated tracts and other materials into that language. We also decided to translate a Russian hymn into English, which we hoped to have included in the new Church hymnal then being prepared.
In several visits to the Soviet Union, I had attended services of the Russian Evangelical Church in both Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). I was impressed by the spirited singing by the choirs and the congregations. From their hymnal I chose a hymn I thought our own members would enjoy singing. I did not strictly translate the hymn, since some of the phraseology, such as "blood of the Lamb," did not seem to fit our Church's vocabulary. But I carefully noted the themes of the hymn - God's redemptive power, devotion to our calling, and others-and incorporated them in my English version. I kept the distinctively Russian music exactly as it appeared in the Russian hymnal, including the minor key that characterizes most Russian hymnody.
Our study group submitted the hymn to the new hymnal committee, and it was accepted. I hope it has ministered to those who have sung it.
Richard Clothier edited A Heritage of Hymns, (Herald House, 1996), which featured additional correspondence with Rawson that further describes how the hymn became part of Hymns of the Saints, and later, Community of Christ Sings. He wrote:
I became impressed that one of the musical heritages from which our hymnody could benefit was the Russian tradition.
Since congregational singing in Russia is found mostly in the Evangelical Christian groups, I searched their hymnals for works whose words carried a message of Christian dedication and whose music was uniquely Russian. Eventually, my choices narrowed to a particular hymn, which I felt spoke to our mission as a church… My hope was that this hymn would not only contribute to our appreciation of Russian religious music but also enhance our spiritual devotion. [p.147]
This hymn fulfills Rawson’s hope. We are enveloped by the haunting Russian melody as the text illuminates and articulates the spiritual journey. The first stanza asks for the Spirit’s presence through prayer and with gratitude. In the second stanza we seek obedience, wisdom, and vision that magnifies our calling. Finally, in the third stanza, we commit to responding with wholehearted service—“I shall serve thee with all of my soul.”
What other way is there to respond to God’s touch? May it be so.