Singing A Prayer for Supply Chains

Celebrating & Critiquing Infrastructure

J. Nathan Matias
5 min readMar 17, 2024
A tractor sits on a newly-mown field in Alpine, NY

Have you noticed that the great moments of Christian action and transformation are accompanied with worship music?

Ever since St Paul and Silas shook the foundations of the prison in Philippi with song, Christians have embraced music as a deep expression of our beliefs, our joy, and our understanding of the world.

I’ve spent many years as a church musician, from crumbling country churches in rural Pennsylvania that burst with joy to the stone chapels of Cambridge University. In 2022, I started to think even more deeply about the role of music when compiling the soundtrack for a 200 mile bicycle pilgrimage — with 12 inches to remember every COVID death. Despite centuries of Christian experience and creativity, the hymns and worship songs I knew from childhood felt unequal to the task of mourning a million dead Americans. Instead, I listened to The Mountain Goats.

Since then, I’ve been paying closer attention for songs that engage with hard problems of institutions and justice. And over the winter break, I was stopped in my tracks by a beautiful hymn by Maltbie Babcock about supply chains and infrastructure.

Horses relax in Central New York, where Maltbie Babcock grew up and studied theology

A Hymn To Supply Chains

Since moving to the Finger Lakes region, I’ve especially enjoyed the music of the 19th century Presbyterian minister Maltbie Babcock (1858–1901), most famous for writing the nature hymn “This is my Father’s World.” Babcock also wrote songs about systems, including this wonderful grace about supply chains:

Back of the loaf the snowy flour,
Back of the flour the mill;
Back of the mill the wheat and the show’r,
The sun and the Father’s will
— Maltbie Babcock

Babcock grew up in New York State at a time when it was the Silicon Valley of its era. Throughout the 19th century, New Yorkers had established farms, built canals, harnessed hydro power, and developed electronic communications. To pick just one example of the region’s wealth and power, both Wells Fargo and American Express had been co-founded in the previous generation by local Henry Wells, the son of a Presbyterian minister from nearby Seneca Falls.

Infrastructure also meant labor and politics and movements for change. Born three years before the American Civil War, Babcock also saw the rise of 19th century progressive Christianity and went to seminary a few blocks away from Harriet Tubman’s home in Auburn NY.

Babcock grew up in New York State at a time when it was the Silicon Valley of its era.

Throughout his life, Babcock would have witnessed the ideal of the yeoman farmer give way to industrial scale food production shipped all over the country by rail. So when he wrote this prayer about supply chains, he might have been thinking about the issue of food safety and regulation that Christians had taken up as they sought to document and secure the safety of the food supply.

With people no longer knowing the workers or the land behind their food, I like to imagine Babcock writing a supply chain hymn to help Christians understand the role of grace at each step.

Confessing the Sin of Supply Chains

Babcock’s prayer is a compelling example of Christian worship that integrates faith and work into the everyday moment of sharing a meal. But what kind of infrastructure is Babcock praising?

Last week I rode my bicycle to the Ganondagan State Historic Site, a Seneca Nation cultural heritage center a few miles northwest of Canandaigua. While there, I purchased a bag of flour from the White Corn Project. This indigenous food sovereignty project by the Seneca Nation works to preserve the heritage food that indigenous people have cultivated for thousands of years in the area.

Behind the flour and the mill in Babcock’s prayer was a century of American work to re-engineer the Finger Lakes into a European system of agriculture. The wheat would have been grown on land stolen from the Seneca and other Haudenosaunee Nations during the Revolutionary War. The land for mills would have been assigned by lottery to veterans in a massive U.S. government handout that made New York the 19th century economic powerhouse it became. In the process, indigenous species were pushed out by the wheat flour celebrated in Babcock’s prayer.

In the last 20 years, many Christian denominations have taken actions to confess, repent, and repudiate the doctrine of discovery that was used to justify colonization

I made cornbread today with the flour I brought back from Ganondagan. The White Corn Project was started in 1997 by the astonishingly-productive Dr. John Mohawk at SUNY Buffalo. The project preserves the genetic heritage of Seneca Nation agriculture, while also training Native American and non-Native young people in traditional agriculture techniques — to “get the Seneca Nation itself growing its corn again.”

In the last 20 years, many Christian denominations have taken actions to confess, repent, and repudiate the doctrine of discovery that was used to justify colonization, including Babcock’s own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A). Some churches have even started to carry out reparations toward indigenous communities (see Restorative Actions for more). In this view, maybe those mills might not have been so much the will of God that Babcock might have imagined.

As I ate the cornbread that I had made with local eggs and maple syrup, the history of each bite felt even heavier than the dense, sweet cake’s moist crumble. As a Guatemalan-American of indigenous heritage who’s now a Cornell professor, I never feel like there’s moral high ground when it comes to complex systems with complex histories.

Then I remembered the smiles and stories I had exchanged with staff at Ganondagan and the light I had felt knowing that the price of the flour would support Seneca Nation food ways. I remembered the fun I had visiting the sugar shack where farmers had sweetened my afternoon snack with agriculture that preserves rather than destroys forests. And I remembered Babcock’s famous reminder that the story isn’t over yet:

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.


  • Westermeyer, P. (1998). Let Justice Sing: Hymnody and Justice. Liturgical Press.



J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American