‘Once to Every Man and Nation Comes the Moment to Decide’

By John Bellinger
Monday, December 11, 2017, 7:04 AM

On this day in 1845, the New England poet and noted abolitionist (and Harvard Law School graduate) James Russell Lowell published a long poem in the Boston Courier entitled “Verses Suggested by the Present Crisis” about the national debate over slavery and the impending war with Mexico after the annexation of the slave-owning Texas by the United States.

The poem included the following lines, which were later incorporated (in part) into a well-known hymn about social responsibility that is still included in many Protestant hymnals and was quoted by Martin Luther King in his “We Shall Overcome” speech in 1966:

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, God's new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,

Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,

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,

Lowell’s words resonate today.