‘Sight to the Inly blind’? Attitudes to Blindness in the Hymnbooks
John M Hull
Theology vol. CV, no. 827, September/October 2002, pp. 333-341
Part I: Evidence
John Merriott’s (1780-1825) well known missionary hymn ‘Let there be light’ contains the following lines:
Thou, Who didst come to bring
On Thy redeeming wing
Healing and sight,
But who are the inly blind? They are those who spiritually or psychologically possess the attributes of blindness. These are assumed to be insensitivity, ignorance and disbelief. The reference is not to those who are literally blind but to those who possess these characteristics inwardly. These negative implications could not be constructed unless blindness itself could really be described in this way, otherwise the analogy would lack credibility.
Such negative attitudes toward blindness are common in hymn books:
It is the work of the Holy Spirit, to whom these lines are addressed, to restore human beings and to lift up our fallen, sinful nature, which is like blindness. Sometimes it is human mortality which is blind;
Awhile his mortal blindness
May miss Gods’ loving kindness,
And grope in faithless strife:
But when life’s day is over
Shall death’s fair night discover
The fields of everlasting life.
Charlotte Elliott’s 1836 hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea’ contains the verse:
The thought is based upon Revelation 3:17. ‘For you say, "I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing." You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.’ The verse, like the hymn, attacks the complacency and self-deception of the church or of those who have not responded to Christ, and blindness is associated with poverty, nakedness and wretchedness. The image of the blind beggar was as familiar to the early Victorians as it was to the early Christian communities.
A somewhat similar thought is expressed by the author of ‘father, hear Thy children’s call’:
Here, however, blindness is associated not so much with poverty and social exclusion as with inner bondage and moral impurity.
Sometimes it is nature that is blind:
Sometimes it is the person belonging to another religious tradition. ‘The heathen in his blindness/ Bows down to wood and stone.’ Sometimes it is the natural scientist:
Blindness is sometimes attributed to the nations in general, or perhaps to the nations which are the object of the church’s mission (Matt. 28:19).
In the hymn ‘Unchanging God, hear from eternal Heav’n’ by the Reverend Samuel Stone (1839-1900), it is Judaism which is blind.
These in soul-blindness now the far-away,
These are not aliens, but Thy sons of yore,
Oh, by Thy fatherhood, restore, restore!
Although people today are quick to deny that a connection can be assumed between sin and disability, the hymns sometimes suggest the contrary.
Lord, remove our guilty blindness,
Hallowed be Thy Name
Show Thy Heart of loving kindness,
Hallowed be Thy Name.
By our heart’s deep-felt contrition,
By our mind’s enlightened vision,
By our will’s complete submission,
Hallowed be Thy Name.
Blindness is guilty but the enlightened mind has vision. The same point is made in another hymn by Timothy Rees, ‘God is love: let heaven adore Him’.
God is love: and though with blindness
Sin afflicts the souls of men,
God’s eternal loving-kindness
Holds and guides them even then.
Certainly, it is the soul not the body which is afflicted with blindness, but the singer is more likely to notice the connection between blindness and sin, while the allegory goes unremarked. In the hymn ‘Spirit of God within me’ by Timothy Dudley-Smith (1926- ) the concept of blindness as an affliction is emphasised by attributing it to Satan.
Spirit of truth within me,
Possess my thought and mind;
Lighten anew the inward eye
By Satan rendered blind.
Sometimes blindness is associated with a specific sin, such as pride and in the example which follows, the opposite of blindness is kindness.
Drive out darkness from the heart,
Banish pride and blindness;
Plant in every inward part
Truthfulness and kindness.
The overwhelming influence in the hymns of blindness as in hymnody in general is, of course, the Bible. A famous example is the hymn ‘I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath’, Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 146.
The Lord pours eyesight on the blind;
The Lord supports the fainting mind;
He sends the labouring conscience peace.
The eschatological vision of the restoration of disabled people as found, for example, in Isaiah 35 is a popular subject. Charles Wesley writes
Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb,
Your loosen’d tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Saviour come;
And leap, ye lame, for joy!
The most important biblical references are to the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, and lame people are often linked with those with visual handicap.
Thine arm, O lord, in days of old,
Was strong to heal and save;
It triumph’d o’er disease and death,
O’er darkness and the grave;
To The they went, the blind, the dumb,
The palsied and the lame,
The leper with his tainted life,
The sick with fever’d frame.
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight.
The theme is as popular today as ever: Go, tell it on the mountain.
He reached out and touched them, the blind, the deaf,
He spoke and listened gladly to anyone who came.
Sometimes the ministry of Christ is focused on his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. A well known example is ‘Hark the glad sound! The Saviour comes’ by Philip Dodderidge (1702-1751).
He comes, the prisoners to release
In Satan’s bondage held.
The chains of sin before Him break,
The iron fetters yield.
He comes to free the captive mind
Where evil thoughts control;
And for the darkness of the blind
Gives light that makes them whole.
In a more modern style, Alan Dale (1902-79) writes:
He sent me to give good news to the poor,
Tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more,
Tell blind people that they can see,
And set the downtrodden free.
Sometimes Jesus is described as continuing his healing ministry.
Raise the fallen, cheer the faint,
Heal the sick, and lead the blind.
The church continues the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus is the Name exalted
Over every other name;
In this Name, whene’er assaulted,
We can put our foes to shame;
Strength to them who else had halted,
Eyes to blind, and feet to lame.
That we may care, as thou hast cared,
For sick and lame, for deaf and blind,
And freely share, as thou hast shared,
In all the sorrows of mankind.
At first sight, the biblical references to blindness, including the very frequent allusions to the ministry of Jesus do not seem to convey the same pejorative sense as the earlier cases we discussed. On closer examination, however, it is clear that the biblical attitude toward blindness is generally negative. The healings of Jesus are usually regarded today not as being mere miracles but are interpreted as symbolising conversion from ignorance and unbelief to faith in Jesus. ‘For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind’ (Jn. 9:39). Not to understand Jesus is to have poor sight. ‘To those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, "they may be ever seeing but not perceiving" ‘. (Mark 4:12). The unbelieving Pharisees are castigated by Jesus as being ‘blind fools’ (Matt. 23:17). When the church continues the ministry of Jesus by offering medical and charitable services to blind people, it not only inherits his actions but there meaning. Thus, the leper not only has a skin disease but a ‘tainted life’; it is the captive mind that is set free by the gospel and ‘and for the darkness of the blind gives light that makes them whole’. When light is given to the inly blind they pass from ignorance into the light of faith; what falls upon the eyes of blind people is not only light but ‘celestial light’.
The metaphor of blindness touches nearly every Christian doctrine. In our created condition we are plunged in ‘mortal blindness’; we confirm this through deliberate sin thus becoming wilfully blind; conversion restores our sight, and even eschatology is made more vivid through the metaphor of blindness.
O quickly come, dread Judge of all;
O quickly come, sure Light of all,
For gloomy night broods o’er our way;
And weakly souls begin to fall
With weary watching for the day:
O quickly come: for round Thy Throne
No eye is blind, no night is known.
In some hymns blindness becomes not so much a metaphor as an allegory of spiritual life.
The very dimness of my sight
Makes me secure;
For, groping in my misty way,
I feel His hand; I hear Him say,
‘My help is sure.’
I cannot read His future plans;
But this I know:
I have the smiling of His face,
And all the refuge of His grace,
While here below.
Enough: this covers all my wants;
And so I rest!
For what I cannot, he can see,
And in His care I saved shall be,
For ever blest.
The spiritual life is passive and dependent. Ignorance and illiteracy compel the believer to trust. This condition is described under the figure of blindness, or perhaps of visual impairment, although the inconsistency is seen in the fact that the believer, although groping in the darkness, can see the smiling face of God. Writing like this reinforces the image of blind people as being pathetically helpless while at the same time romanticising the condition through suggesting that somehow the blind person displays desirable spiritual qualities.
Part II Discussion
We have seen that reference to blindness in the hymns of the church are frequent, and always explicitly or implicitly negative. This feature is not unique to hymnody but is common in all forms of spoken and written English, and in other languages. It would be interesting to know whether there is a language in which blindness is not used as a negative metaphor. Certainly in English it is so widespread and normal as to be almost invisible. In a recent collection of approximately 750 cases of the use of the word ‘blind’ in one of the quality daily newspapers, literal and metaphorical use was evenly balanced. The striking fact is that almost all of the metaphorical examples were negative. ‘He shows a blind disregard for the welfare of the country’. ‘He struck out in blind fury’. ‘She remains obstinately blind to the truth’. To be blind is to lack discrimination, to be ignorant, stubborn and insensitive. Our teachers speak of blind marking and our medical researchers of conducting a blind trial. In each case reference is made to the anonymity of the students’ or the unknown identity of the experimental group. Such expressions, however, reinforce the image of blindness as ignorance. It is not surprising that when someone brought up in such a culture loses his or her sight, and all the unconscious negativity of blindness is turned in upon the self, that there is a huge loss of self-esteem. Thus, the phenomenological loss of sight, serious enough in itself, is made worse by the oppressive language.
Within the Christian tradition we must face the fact that far from liberating the language from such negative imaging, our scriptures encourage it and our hymns reinforce it. The situation regarding people who are hard of hearing is pretty much the same.
Is this political correctness gone mad? There is no doubt that feminist and anti-racist critiques of language have brought about increased sensitivity to the way in which language is used to maintain the status of dominant groups, but the shadow of linguistic oppression is still cast upon disabled people. When ‘political correctness’ is used disparagingly by a dominant group, it becomes a defensive sneer. People in the marginalised group whose condition is stigmatised by the traditional language are justified in regarding the demand for political correctness as a call for emancipation.
The strange thing is that in most areas of disability the language has been more or less purged, at least in public. We no longer describe people with personality disorders as ‘nut cases’, and we rightly restrain our children if they call out ‘spazzo’ at a child that drops a ball. People suffering from impeded growth are no longer described as dwarves. We can best account for the survival of the negative metaphors of blindness and deafness on the grounds that (1) these expressions are so deeply rooted in our language, and so widely used that they have become inaudible. Even blind and deaf people seem often not to notice their implications. (2) The negative metaphors are supported by the Bible and are thus reinforced by piety. People whose reading of the Bible is respectful and devotional do not notice this aspect of the Biblical language. If it is pointed out to them, they usually respond by saying that the language is metaphorical which is just the problem.
When the attention of sighted church-goers is drawn to this issue, they tend to become apologetic about the use of candles, stained glass windows and the use of the metaphors of light. This, however, is quite unnecessary. As a blind person, I recognise that sighted people live in a world which is significantly different from my own. It is natural for them to rejoice in their world, and it is appropriate that religious truth should be conveyed to them in the language of their world. Nevertheless, they should not attack my world. They should not reinforce the significance of their own experience by denigrating mine. If sighted people wish to sing
My eyes were closed; I could not see
In Your marred visage any grace:
But now the beauty of Your face
In radiant vision dawns on me,
I have no objection, because they are using a metaphor which comes from within their own world – the closing of the eyes. However, this is not what W. T. Matson (1833-1899) wrote: ‘Lord I was blind; I could not see’. This becomes an attack on my world since blindness is now equated with unbelief.
We must train ourselves to purify our language from unconscious traces of prejudice. The truth is that there is no such thing as spiritual blindness. There is spiritual insensitivity, stubbornness, ignorance and callousness, but when we refer to these qualities as being spiritual blindness we reinforce the prejudice, and collaborate in the continued marginalisation of disabled people.