“A rare man” – and a rare poet

By
  • Kelly Byquist
-

What brightness dawned in resurrection
And shone in Mary’s wondering eyes!
Her heart was thrilled with new affection,
She saw her Lord in life arise.

 She knew the Christ, undimmed by dying,
Alive forevermore to save;
Creative Mind, all good supplying,
Had triumphed over cross and grave.1

The author of these words was a gifted poet. In fact, the poem itself was a last-minute gift to the Christian Science Hymnal.

William McKenzie (pictured at right, circa 1932) wrote seven hymns for the Christian Science Hymnal. Longyear Museum Collection.

In 1932, just as the Hymnal was being readied for the printer, the Hymnal Revision Committee encountered an unexpected hurdle. Permission to print a poem by John Ellerton, which was intended for hymn #381, was withdrawn.2 With not a moment to lose, the committee sent an urgent request to William McKenzie. Would he be willing to write a replacement?

It wasn’t an easy task. The poem’s words would have to match the cadence of the tune. Also, the first line would need to begin with the letter “W” to fit within the hymnal’s alphabetical order.

Mr. McKenzie consented. He pulled out his paper and pen and got to work. The resulting poem, a tender view of the resurrection, has been a much-loved hymn ever since.3 In all, seven of William McKenzie’s poems would be published in that 1932 Hymnal.4

From an early age, William Patrick McKenzie was a deep thinker.5 As he grew into young manhood and beyond, it became apparent that he had a gift for the English language as well. As the son and grandson of Scottish Presbyterian ministers, William planned to follow in their footsteps. After graduating from Toronto University in his native Canada in 1884, and Knox Theological College in Toronto in 1889, he also attended Auburn Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York. He went on to serve as pastor of a small Presbyterian church, and taught literature and rhetoric at the University of Rochester.

During these years, he wrote a succession of poetry books related to songs: Voices and Undertones in Song and Poem; A Song of Trust; and Songs of the Human.6 He even sent a copy of Voices and Undertones to Walt Whitman.7

“O Good Gray Poet,” William began in his accompanying letter, “When I read your writings I get inspiration, I have the feeling of the boundlessness of the universe, of the greatness of a man. . . . My excuse for writing you is the sending of a book; a first utterance, called ‘Voices & Undertones’—it bears greeting and admiring love, though it may be a poor messenger to bear the treasure.”8

Left: William McKenzie (1889). Illustration fromVoices and Undertones in Song and Poem. Right: Walt Whitman (1887). Photograph courtesy Library of Congress.

But at this juncture, things began to stir in William’s thought. His growing discontent with traditional theology, coupled with his deep sense of obligation to his family, eventually erupted in a nervous breakdown and he entered a nearby sanatorium. While there, he experienced what was to him a revelation in an enlightened understanding of God as Love, and was quickly restored to health.

It was soon after this experience that William learned of Christian Science, which answered his questions, gave him a satisfying view of the Scriptures, and shared the view of God as Love that he had been sensing. Within a short while, William gave up his teaching post and pulpit to devote his time and energies to the Cause of Christian Science.9 He joined The Mother Church and was made a “First Member,” became First Reader at Second Church of Christ, Scientist, in Toronto, took Primary class instruction, and by 1896 was listed in The Christian Science Journal as a practitioner. Later on, Mr. McKenzie also became a Christian Science teacher.10

Mary Baker Eddy recognized his dedication when she wrote, “Dear Professor McKenzie was mending his nets when Christ called him to me.”11

One of the things William never gave up was his literary and poetic bent, and over the years he continued to compose and publish scores of poems. Proud of his Scottish heritage, he wrote several poetry books in Scots dialect, including Bits o’ Verse in Scots; The Auld Fowk: Some Verses in Scots; and Fowls o’ the Air: And Other Verses in Scots.12

Cover and first page of William McKenzie’s The Auld Fowk, copyrighted in 1927. McKenzie (at right) dressed in the McKenzie clan’s traditional tartan and cap. Photograph, Longyear Museum Collection.

In 1903, William published a poetry book titled The Sower and Other Poems. Fields of Bloom appeared in 1930, and in 1942, he released Prelude Poems for the New Day.13

Longyear Museum has in its collection autographed copies of McKenzie’s The Sower and Other Poems, Fields of Bloom, and Prelude Poems for the New Day.

Perhaps his most well-known book of poems is Heartsease Hymns, originally published in 1895 in Toronto. When McKenzie sent Mary Baker Eddy an autographed copy, she noted that the poems “Truth” and “The Present” were among his “finest.”

“The book is valuable,” Mrs. Eddy wrote him. “Your tender secret breathed so delicately includes much.”14

Mary Baker Eddy in 1891 (right) and a copy of Heartsease Hymns by William McKenzie. Longyear Museum Collection.

One couplet in “The Present” is repeated for emphasis. It reads:

The future and past are man’s,
The Present belongeth to God.

A slightly edited version of the poem “Truth,” which begins “There are none friendless, none afraid,” would eventually find its way into the Christian Science Hymnal (#339).15 

Left: Cover page of a 1901 edition of Heartsease Hymns. Right: William McKenzie’s poem “Truth,” which Mrs. Eddy called one of the author’s “finest,” appears in the 1932 Christian Science Hymnal (#339) as well as the most recent hymnal supplement (#581).

This wasn’t the first time Mrs. Eddy had complimented William McKenzie on his poetry. Back in October 1894, his poem “One Thing Needful” appeared in The Christian Science Journal. It reads:

Gently hath a sweet voice spoken;
One thing needful must ye choose;
O ye weary and heart-broken,
Can ye still this call refuse?

Seeking good on earth nor finding,
All your hope earth must defraud,—
Things of sense forever blinding
Eyes whose light is seeing God.

Patient Love, so wise and tender,
Standing mother-like apart,
Waits till love awakened send her
Each far-wanderer from her heart.

And that love, the one thing needful,
Bringeth life and conquers death;
Oh, let hearts be still and heedful,
Hearing what the sweet voice saith.
16

Mrs. Eddy responded right away: “Your poem in our Journal is like the song of the redeemed, and the smiles and tears of the new-born for the milk of the Word. It touched my heart of hearts.”17

Left: Front cover of a 1901 edition of McKenzie’s Heartsease Hymns. Right: Heartsease flowers are a type of wild pansy that are most often yellow and purple colored.

William McKenzie’s’s literary talents and biblical scholarship would be put to good use in the ranks of the Christian Science movement. In 1896, Mrs. Eddy appointed him to the Bible Lesson Committee, a post he held for 21 years. In 1898, he was appointed one of the original members of the Board of Trustees of The Christian Science Publishing Society, a position he held for nearly two decades. That year, he was also selected to be one of the first members of the Christian Science Board of Lectureship and would lecture until 1915. He was Editor of the Christian Science periodicals for three years (1917-1920), was elected President of The Mother Church, and served on the Christian Science Board of Directors.

In addition to all of these duties, and his work as a Christian Science practitioner and teacher, William wrote more than 300 articles and poems found within the pages of the Christian Science periodicals.

Mrs. Eddy’s printer, William Dana Orcutt, who worked very closely with Mr. McKenzie, had this to say about him: “He was a rare man, deeply interested in the humanities, with a spiritual character which I have never ceased to admire.”18

Portrait of William P. McKenzie by Eileen Ayrton. Longyear Museum Collection.

Notes


  1. William P. McKenzie, Christian Science Hymnal, #381. Quoted in the main text are the first two stanzas of the poem. The last two stanzas read: With hope and faith, like exiles yearning / For homelands loved through patient years, / The hearts of men are homeward turning / To God Who giveth rest from fears. / Assured and safe in Love’s protection, / Great peace have they, and unsought joy; They rise from sin in resurrection, / And works of love their hands employ.
  2. Rev. John Ellerton (1826-1893), a nineteenth century clergyman, hymnodist, and hymnologist, authored several theological devotional works and wrote or translated over 85 poems. His poem which was initially intended for hymn #381 in the Christian Science Hymnal was written in 1870. It begins, “The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended.” (The Hymnal Revision Committee had dropped Ellerton’s first stanza and started with his second stanza: “We thank thee that thy church is unsleeping.”)
  3. Peter J. Hodgson, “What brightness dawned in resurrection” sidebar, Longyear Report to Members (Fall 2005).
  4. William McKenzie wrote the following seven poems found in the 1932 Christian Science Hymnal: “Happy the man whose heart can rest” (#93); “In mercy, in goodness, how great is our King” (#150); “O Love divine, that dwells serene” (#228); “Praise now creative Mind” (#275); “There are none friendless, none afraid” (#339); “Trust the Eternal when the shadows gather” (#359); “What brightness dawned in resurrection” (#381).
  5. “At five,” McKenzie recalled, “I questioned: Why does not God kill the devil?” And, “At fourteen, I had many a wakeful night over the puzzle of the atonement & the horror that ‘hell’ suggested.” William P. McKenzie to Septimus J. Hanna, September 22, 1894, quoted in Audrey Blackler’s “Rev. William P. McKenzie, C.S.B.: A Gentle Christian Warrior.” Click here to read the article.
  6. Click here to access A Song of Trust (1887); here for Voices and Undertones in Song and Poem (1889); and here for Songs of the Human (1892).
  7. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was a well-known American poet, essayist, and journalist. In Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a poetry book which he first published in 1855 but which he would revise and reissue over the years until his passing, there is a poem titled “Song of Myself.” Perhaps this particular poem inspired William McKenzie’s poems related to songs.
  8. “William P. McKenzie to Walt Whitman, 10 October 1889.” The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 22 February 2021. <http://www.whitmanarchive.org>.
  9. “Reminiscences of Daisette Stocking McKenzie, C.S.B., and William Patrick McKenzie, C.S. B.,” 16-17, The Mary Baker Eddy Collection, The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, Massachusetts, hereafter referred to as MBEL.
  10. William McKenzie was taught by Pamelia Leonard, one of Mrs. Eddy’s students. He would also be taught by Mrs. Eddy herself in her last class in 1898 in Concord, New Hampshire. To be a First Member of The Mother Church was a great privilege and honor. Chosen by Mary Baker Eddy, First Members were part of the body of members that were initially responsible for the Church’s governance. Click here to read a Longyear article about the history of First Members. Although Mrs. Eddy had never met William McKenzie, she made him a First Member after reading a poem he had written in the October 1894 issue of The Christian Science Journal (see endnote 16). This was only one month after he had formally withdrawn from the Presbyterian church. William McKenzie was introduced to Christian Science by Daisette Stocking. The two served together as First and Second Reader in Toronto and would eventually marry.
  11. Mary Baker Eddy to Daisette Stocking McKenzie, August 16, 1895, quoted in “Reminiscences of Daisette Stocking McKenzie, C.S.B., and William Patrick McKenzie, C.S. B.,” 17 and 35a, MBEL.
  12. Bits o’ Verse in Scots (1927) can be accessed online by clicking here; click here for The Auld Fowk: Some Verses in Scots (1930); and here for Fowls o’ the Air: And Other Verses in Scots (1930).
  13. Click here to read The Sower and Other Poems (1903).
  14. Mary Baker Eddy to William P. McKenzie, August 5, 1895, L13030, MBEL. Mrs. Eddy owned two autographed copies of Heartsease Hymns, both presumably gifts from the author. One copy is inscribed: “To Mother in Israel from the loving heart of W.P.M. Dec. 1895.” The second reads: “To Rev. Mary Baker Eddy Tender and Loving ‘Mother in Israel’ our Teacher and Friend with whole hearted affection from ‘Heartsease’ and W.P.M. August 1, 1901.” Mrs. Eddy also owned a copy of McKenzie’s The Sower and Other Poems. Chestnut Hill Books, Pre-1910 Finding Aid and Mary Baker Eddy Book Collection, 1551, 1693-1910 Finding Aid, MBEL (click here and here to access). Click here to read Heartsease Hymns (1901).
  15. Three poems in Heartsease Hymns were later turned into hymns and placed in the Christian Science Hymnal. Originally titled “The Secret Joy,” “Truth,” and “The Eternal,” these poems became hymns #228, #339/#581, and #359.
  16. W. P. M., “One Thing Needful,” The Christian Science Journal 12 (October 1894): 297.
  17. Mary Baker Eddy to William P. McKenzie, October 2, 1894, L04847, MBEL.
  18. William Dana Orcutt, Mary Baker Eddy and Her Books (Boston: The Christian Science Publishing Society, 1950): 97.