Once to Every Man and Nation

My poem of the week this week is James Russell Lowell’s “Once to Every Man and Nation.” This version, which appears in some hymnals, is edited from Lowell’s original, and I have left out some verses which are problematic.

These three verses powerfully communicate the need to stand for truth whether or not you will be successful. They communicate in verse a principle I state often with my kids and in classes- better to die nobly than to survive ignobly.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.


– James Russell Lowell



  1. Yes, there was in general a sense of truth changing. I am told though that even this full form is not Lowell’s original, but a condensed version. I read what was reported to be his original in which the various lines were longer and not as pithy

  2. The original said “Some great cause, God’s new Messiah” but that change was made in a lot of hymnals.

    The part you probably found problematic is this:

    “New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
    They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth”

    The “uncouth” ancient good Lowell refers to was slavery which many at the time were arguing was perfectly biblical.

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