A Look Back in History by Richard H. Shaner: Old church hymn echoes our Earthly paradise

As a young man celebrating life with other religious denominations in America, I chanced to hear the amazing English Hymn performed by pop star Cat Stevens, on modern radio around 1970. His most outstanding solo was called “Morning Has Broken,” a world-wide tune in which earthly individuals recognize the glory of the universe. It’s a Christian folk tune in which our belief in God made this melody a popular hit song among humanitarians everywhere.

Although it was an old hymn not published until 1931, Cat Stevens made it a dynamic rendition, about the sun breaking through to the earth, like the very “first morning” on the planet Earth. What a wholesome concept as human beings and animals realized the goodness of Mother Earth. It’s a positive Hymn in which optimism and love are expressed by all earthly occupants, sharing God’s eternal destiny in the original Garden of Eden.

Cat Stevens reminded the youth of his day that one shall not take God for granted and the wonderful opportunities He has provided in a joyous world for each person to share with all others, including the beasts of the field, to multiply for fruitful admiration. Not a Christian revivalist, Cat Stevens was especially moved by this Christian Hymn written by Shackley and turned it into an exuberant melody, which became his theme song. Along with other popular folk music from far away England, this was an unusual respite from American Rock music.

Cat Stevens’s albums became smash hits among Christian families who recalled the words to “Morning Has Broken,” an endearing old English Hymn familiar to American immigrants who came to the United States for Freedom of Religion. Thus, his folk songs, heard on local radio stations, won him immediate acceptance among people who enjoyed his folk music style. As a member of the old Salem UCC Church in Oley Township, this past February, our church organist, Kathy Snyder, played this old English Hymn, “Morning Has Broken,” as a prelude to our Sunday Church Service.

Salem Church, dating back to 1736, is one of those Colonial churches in which this old hymn was part of American church services from time in memoriam, where its native church edifice had welcomed the morning sunrise for many decades prior to 1776; it’s PA Dutch congregation of farm families in which the morning sunrise was indicative of our daily lives, as Shackley’s hymn states from the “Very first sunrise of the universe to today.”

Kathy Snyder, a very accomplished pianist and organist, performed Cat Stevens’s English “signature” song with such gusto, that those in attendance could recall the radiant and reverent words to “Morning Has Broken,” providing an uplifting mood for that Sunday service. British born Cat Stevens was born in London in 1948, where the family operated a restaurant to a Greek Cypriot father and a Swedish Baptist mother. Although his father was Greek Orthodox, Cat Stevens attended Saint Joseph Roman Catholic Primary School on Macklin Street, which was close to his father’s business on Drury Lane.

Playing the family’s baby grand piano at age 15, he was inspired by the Beatles to take up the guitar and become a Rock and Roll folk singer. In the l970s he made several albums which were major successes in America, including “Peace Train”. Having suffered a severe case of Tuberculosis in 1969, and escaping a drowning incident in California, he became a Muslim in 1977. Intellectually interested in a form of Muslim prayer singing, Stevens became a Muslim, which put him on a “No Fly” list of people coming to the United States.

However, his lifestyle as an earlier Christian was most memorable, providing him with an outstanding musical career in Western Civilization. He is to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

Richard Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.