John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) grew up on a farm in Massachusetts. While he did not have the advantage of a higher education, a teacher in the district school that he attended as a boy introduced him to poetry. He became particularly fond of the poetry of Robert Burns.
Whittier was a lifelong Quaker whose faith shaped his life and much of his writing. He didn’t intend to write hymns for two reasons: First, he didn’t feel competent musically. Second, in his Quaker tradition, hymns were not sung in worship. Nevertheless, several of his poems were set to music by other people. Many modern hymnals include one or two of his hymns, but “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is the only one that has had nearly universal acceptance.
The verses of this hymn come toward the end of a longer poem entitled, “The Brewing of Soma.” Soma was an intoxicating drink used in Hindu worship to induce religious frenzy. Whittier, who was appalled at the frenzied revivalism of his day, asks God to “Forgive our feverish ways.” He honors quiet qualities of religious devotion—”purer lives”—”deeper reverence”—and “simple trust”— qualities that he learned from his Quaker faith.
Whittier’s faith led him to become a strong advocate of the abolition of slavery. William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolitionist, was the first person to publish his poems, and the two men became lifelong friends. Whittier was one of the founders of the Republican Party—Lincoln’s party—devoted to the abolition of slavery. He lived long enough to see the slaves freed in the United States.
— Copyright 2007, Richard Niell Donovan