STORIES BEHIND THE HYMNS
BE THOU MY VISION
Text- Iris hymn, c.8th century
Translated by Mary E. Byrne, 1880-1931
Versified by Eleanor H. Hull, 1860-1935
Music- Irish Melody
Arrangement- Norman Johnson, 1928-1983
Tune name- “Slane”
Meter- 10 10. 10 10
“Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18
“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” Jonathan Swift – Thoughts on Various Subjects
“Vision is of God. A vision comes in advance of any task well done.” Katherine Logan
This eighth-century, anonymous, Irish hymn text expresses, in the quaint Celtic style, the ageless need of man to have a heavenly vision and to experience God’s care and personal presence throughout this earthly pilgrimage. The author’s high regard for God is evident in the various titles ascribed Him: Vision, Lord, Best Thought, Wisdom, Word, Great Father, High King, Inheritance, Treasure, Sun Ruler, and Heart.
Another interesting verse often omitted in our hymnals is as follows:
Be Thou my breast-plate, my sword for the fight,
Be Thou my armour, and be Thou my might;
Thou my soul’s shelter, and Thou my high tower,
Raise Thou me heavenward, O Power of my Power.
My Byrne’s translation of this ancient Irish poem into English prose first appeared in the journal Erin, Volume Two, published in 1905. Later her Poem Book of the Gael, 1912. The tune, “Slane,” is a traditional Irish air from Patrick W. Joyce’s collection, Old Irish Folk Music and Songs, published in 1909. The tune was originally used with a secular text, “With My Love on the Road.” Its first association with this hymn text was in the Irish Church Hymnal of 1919. The tune is named for a hill, ten miles from Tara, in County Meath, where St. Patrick is said to have challenged King Loegaire and the Druid priests by lighting the Paschal fire on Easter eve. Although the melody has been harmonized by various musicians such as Norman Johnson (See “Not What These Hands Have Done,” No. 64), it is generally recommended that this tune is most effective when sung in unison.
Mary Elizabeth Byrne was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1880. She received her education at the University of Dublin and became a research worker and writer for the Board of Intermediate Education in her home town. One of her most important works was her contribution to the Old and Mid-Irish Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Irish Language.
Eleanor H. Hull was born in Manchester, England, on January 15, 1860. She was the founder and secretary fo the Irish Text Society and served as president of the Irish Literary Society, in London. She authored several books on Irish history and literature.
Another anonymous writer has penned these significant thoughts about the importance of having a vision for one’s life:
A vision without a task is a dram;
A task without a vision is drudgery;
A vision with a task is the hope of the world.
Truly our visionary attitude throughout life is often the difference between success and mediocrity. One is reminded of the classic story of the two shoe-salesmen who were sent to a primitive island to determine business potential. The first salesman wired back, “Coming home immediately. No one here wears shoes.” The second man responded, “Send a boatload of shoes immediately. The possibilities for selling shoes here are unlimited.”
May we as believers be characterized as people of vision – “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…” Hebrews 12:2
“The highest joy that can be known by those who heav’n-ward wend-
It is the Word of Life to own, and God to have as friend.” Nils Frykman
“To the preacher, life’s a sermon,
To the joker, life’s a jest,
To the miser, life is money,
To the loafer, life’s a rest.
“To the soldier, life’s a battle,
To the teacher, life’s a school.
Life’s a great thing for the thinker,
But it’s folly to the fool.
“life is just one long vacation,
To the man who loves his work,
But it’s constant dodging duty
To the everlasting shirk.
“To the faithful, earnest worker
Life’s a story ever new;
Life is what we try to make it –
What in truth is life to you?”
Used by permission 101 More Hymn Stories Kregel Publications
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded
Author- Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, 1091-1153
Translated into German by Paul Gerhardt, 1607-1676
Translated into English by James W. Alexander, 1804-1859
Music- Hans Leo Hassler, 1564-1612
Harmonized by Johann Sebastian Bach, 1685-1750
Tune Name- “Passion Chorale”
Meter- 76.76 Doubled
The text of this deeply-moving hymn is thought to have its roots in twelfth-century monastic life. It has long been attributed to Saint Bernard, abbot of the monastery of Clairvaux, France. Recent research, however, has raised some questions as to whether this was actually the work of Saint Bernard or possibly the writings of a later medieval author, Arnulf von Loewen.
Bernard was born to a noble family at Fontaine-in Burgundy, France; his father was a knight and his mother a person of radiant goodness. While in his early twenties, Bernard chose the life oa a monk at the monastery of Citeaux, France. It is generally agreed that Bernard of Clairvaux became one of the finest and most influential church leader of that period. He is said to have represented the best of monastic life in this time. The emphasis of his ministry was a life of holiness, simplicity, devotion, prayer, preaching, and ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of mankind. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther wrote of Bernard that “he was the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.” It has also generally been believed that Bernard wrote another long poem entitled, Dulcis Jesus Memorial (“Joyful Rhythm on the Name of Jesus”), from which Edward Caswall in the nineteenth century translated portions of the lines for his well-known hymn text, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” (101 Hymn Stories, No. 49).
“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” is taken form a lengthy, medieval poem Rhythmica Oratio, in seven parts, ewith each part addressing various members of Christ’s body as He suffered on the cross: His feet, knees, hands, side, breast, heart, and face. This hymn text is from the seventh portion of the poem and was originally titled “Salve Caput Cruentatum.” The German translation by Paul Gerharddt first appeared in 1656 in the German hymnal, Praxis Pietatis Medlica. Here it was titled “O Haup voll Blut Wunden” (“To the Suffering Face of Jesus Christ”). The hymn text first appeared in English, in 1830, in the hymnal, The Christian Lyer, after James W. Alexander, a Presbyterian minister, had translated Paul Gerhardt’s free German translation.
Paul Gerhardt was born at Grafenheinchen, Saxony, Germany, on March 12, 1607, nd eventually was ordained to the German Reformed Church ministry. His life was a tragic one, beginning with a much suffering in his early life during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), and later he experienced the early loss of his wife and four children, who died in early childhood. Gerhardt also became the center of much theological and political controversy during the rule of Frederick William I., Elector of Saxony, when Gerhardt refused to assent to the edict of the ruler that forbade free discussion of the differences between the Lutheran and the Calvinist Reformed Churches. Yet today, Paul Gerhardt and the Lutheran pastor, Martin Rinkart, (See “Now Thank We All Our God,” (101 Hymn Stories, No. 62)) are recognized as the foremost, German hymnists of the seventeenth century. Paul Gerhardt is credited with writing 132 hymn texts during his life. His texts are said to be a reflection of inner spiritual wealth, many of them written “under circumstances which would have made most men cry rather than sing.” Gerhardt’s hymns represent a transition from pure objective faith to a more subjective note in hymnody, containing an emotional warmth that often was lacking in the earlier Lutheran hymns. Catherine Winkworth, noted nineteenth-century English hymn translator, has written this concerning Paul Gerhardt: “The religious song of Saxony finds its purest and sweetest expression in this writing.”
James Waddell Alexander was born at Hopewell, Virginia, on March 13, 1804. He received his seminary training at Princeton Theological Seminary and later taught church history there for several years. Following his ordination, Alexander pastored several large Presbyterian churches in New Jersey and New York. He always maintained a keen interest in hymnology, especially in translating the earlier Latin and German texts. A number of these translations were published posthumously, in 1861, in a book titled The Breaking Crucible and Other Translation.
The tune, “Passion Chorale,” was originally a German love song (“My Heart is Distracted by a Gentle Maid”) in Hans Leo Hassler’s collection, Lustgarten Neuer Deutscher Gessang, of 1601. Hassler is generally considered to be one of the finest German composers of the late Renaissance, in both secular and sacred music. The tune first appeared with Gerhardt’s text in the Praxis Pietatis Melica, published by Johann Cruger, in 1644. It has been associated with this text both in German and in English ever since. The Praxis Pietatis Melica is recognized as the most influential and widely used German hymnal of the seventeenth century. Within one hundred years after its initial publication, nearly fifty editions of the hymnal had been printed.
The harmonization of this tune is by the German master-composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, undoubtedly the greatest church musician of history. Bach was not only a superb musician (to study traditional harmony today is still to study the writings of Bach), but also a devout Christian, who insisted that “the aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit.” Many of Bach’s compositions began with the inscription, “Jesus, help me!” And at their close, “To God alone be the praise.” It would appear that Bach was especially fond of this melody, since he used the chorale five times throughout his well-known St. Matthew Passion, composed in 1729. The present musical version of this hymn is really a combination of various harmonizations of this melody employed by Bach.
“This classic hymn has shown in three tongues – Latin, German and English (and now Spanish) – and in three confessions – Roman, Lutheran and Reformed- with equal effect, the dying love of our Savor and our boundless indebtedness to Him” Philip Schaff
“Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I myself have founded empires; but upon what do these creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love; and to this very day millions would gladly die for Him.” Napoleon
“Thorns crowned His blessed head,
Blood stained His every tread;
Cross laden, on He sped-
“Pierced through His hands and feet,
Three hours o’er Him did beat’
Pierce rays of noontide heat’
“In thought and word and deed,
Thy will to do; oh, lead my feet;
E’en though they bleed –
Used by permission 101 More Hymn Stories Kregel Publication
ON JORDAN’S STORMY BANKS
Author- Samuel Stennett, 1727-1795
Music- Traditional American melody
Adapted by Rigdon M. McIntosh, 1836-1899
Tune Name- “Promised Land”
Meter- CM (86-86)
“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” 1Corinthians 15:19
Anticipation has always been an important characteristic of God’s people. In the Old Testament, it was Israel’s anticipation of the promised land, Canaan. For the New Testament believer, it is the glorious hope of one day sharing eternity with our Savior and Lord.
This hymn text, written by an English Baptist minister, Samuel Stennett, first appeared in John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, in 1787, with the title “Heaven Anticipate.” It has since been a joyous favorite with evangelical people everywhere.
Samuel Stennett was one of the most respected and influential preachers among the Dissenting or non-conformist groups of his time. He was highly esteemed by all religious groups and classes of people; it was said that he was even a personal friend of the reigning monarch, King George III. Not only was Stennett known as an outstanding evangelical preacher, but he also used his influence among the tradesmen of the time in vigorous support of social reforms and religious freedom.
Samuel Stennett was born, in 1727, in Exeter, England, the son of a Baptist minister. Later, his father received a call to pastor the Baptist Church on Little Wild Street, London, and at the age of twenty, young Samuel became his father’s assistant there. Upon this father’s death, in 1758, Samuel became the pastor and continued this ministry, until his own death thirty-seven years later. Among his influential parishioners was John Howard, the noted English philanthropist and prison reformer.
Throughout his ministry, Stennett also authored thirty-nine hymns, most of which he contributed to one of the most important evangelical hymnals of the eighteenth century, John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, published in 1787 (See 101 Hymn Stories, No. 32). Stennett’s two most popular hymns still in usage are “Majestic Sweetness Sits Enthroned” (ibid., No. 56) and “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” In 1763, the University of Aberdeen conferred the Doctor of Divinity degree upon Samuel Stennett, in recognition of his accomplishments.
The tune, “Promised Land,” is one of the many traditional melodies used in the United Sates during the early part of the nineteenth century.
There are several secular songs from this time that closely resemble the “Promised Land” melody. Its first appearance as a hymn tune can be traced back to 1835 in a hymnal called Southern Harmony, where it is shown with shaped notes. Later, a noted Southern musician named Rigdon M. McIntosh altered the tune by changing the tonality form minor to major as well as by adding the refrain. The hymn was first published in its present form, in 1895, in a hymnal called The Gospel Light, edited by H.R. Christie.
Samuel Stennett completed his faithful and effective ministry for God and reached “Canaan’s fair and happy land” on August 24, 1795.
“The hope of heaven under troubles is like the wind and sails to the soul.” Samuel Rutherford
“The joys of heaven are not the joys of passive contemplation, of dreamy remembrance, of perfect repose; but they are described thus, ‘They rest not day or night…His servants serve Him and see His face.’” Alexander MacLaren
“In heaven, to be even the least is a great thing, where all will be great; for all shall be called the children of God.” Thomas a Kempis
“One sweetly solemn thought comes to me o’er and o’er:
I am nearer my home today that I ever have been before.
“Nearer my Father’s house, where the many mansion be;
Nearer the great white throne, nearer the crystal sea.
“Nearer the bound of life, where we lay our burden down;
Nearer leaving the cross; nearer gaining the crown.
“But lying darkly between, winding down through the night,
Is the silent, unknown stream, that leads at last to the light.
“Oh, if my mortal feet have almost gained the bring;
\If it be I am nearer home, even today, than I think!
“Father, perfect my trust; let my spirit feel in death,
That her feet are firmly set on the rock of a living faith!”
Used by permission 101 More Hymn Stories Kregel Publications
Faith of Our Fathers
Author- Frederick W. Faber, 1814-1863
Composer- Henri F. Hemy, 1818-1888
Adapted- James G. Walton, 1821-1905
Tune Name- “St. Catherine”
Our fathers trusted in Thee: They trusted, and Thou didst deliver them. Psalm 22:4
The eleventh chapter of Hebrews has well been called the “great gallery of gallant Christian faith” – a thrilling account of spiritual giants who were willing to give all in defense of their faith in God. There have been martyrs of the Christian faith in every century since this New Testament record was first written. Some writers and historians have estimated that at least fifty million individuals have died a martyr’s death since the crucifixion of Christ. Even today, in our civilized culture, there are many who suffer and die because of their faith and profession of Christ as Savior and lord.
No doubt the hearing and singing of this hymn conjures in many minds various scenes from the great “cloud of witnesses” referred to in Hebrews 12:1, who, with their surrounding but unseen presence, encourage us to “run with patience the race that is set before us.” It is good for us to be reminded often that the history of the Christian faith is a rich heritage of countless numbers whose faith in God was counted more dear than life itself. Much could be said about the first century Christians and their persecution by the Roman Empire, for the suffering of the Huguenots in France during the reign of Louis XIV, or even the religious persecution to our forefathers resulting in their quest for a new land where they could enjoy religious freedom.
The “faith of our fathers” referred to in this hymn, however, is the faith of the martyred leaders of the Roman Catholic Church during the sixteenth century. The author of this text, Frederick William Faber, born June 28, 1814, in Calverley, Yorkshire, England, was raised as a strict Calvinist by a father who was an English clergyman. After young Faber’s graduation form the renowned Oxford University in 1843, he became a minister in the Anglican Church at a small parish at Elten, England.
IN his younger days Faber was strongly opposed to the teachings and practices of the Roman Church. However, this was the time when a movement known as the Oxford or Tractarian Movement was strongly influencing the Anglican Church. Whereas the Wesleys and their evangelical followers preached a message of personal conversion easily grasped by even the illiterate man, leaders of the more sophisticated Oxford Movement were of the persuasion that a meaningful religious experience could only be gained through better liturgical and ceremonial church services. From about 1833 to 1850 the Oxford Movement tenaciously directed religious England, during which time many of the Anglican Church’s leaders either joined the roman Church or developed a rejuvenated high church party known as Anglo-Catholics.
Early in his ministerial training Faber came under the influence of this Oxford Movement. After serving just three years as an Anglican minister, he left the Church and joined the Roman Catholic fold. He became known as Father Wilfrid. Shortly after his secession to the Roman Church Faber noticed that great lack of congregational hymnody that existed within this group. He recalled the important and influential role that congregational singing had in Anglican congregations, especially within the more evangelical parishes. Faber began to make it his life’s mission to write hymns that promoted the history and teachings of the Catholic Church. In all Frederick Faber wrote 150 such hymns before his early death at the age of forty-nine. For his effort in this regard he was honored by the Pope with a Doctor of Divinity Degree.
“Faith of Our Fathers” was written by Faber to remind Catholic congregations of their many leaders who were martyred during the reign of Henry VIII in the early days of the establishment of the Anglican Church in Great Britain. The text first appeared in 1849 in Faber’s collection, Jesus and Mary; or Catholic Hymns for Singing and Reading. It was always Faber’s hope that someday England would be brought back to the papal fold. One of the omitted verses from his original text expresses this thought:
Faith of our Fathers! Mary’s prayers
Shall win our country back to thee;
And though the truth that comes from God,
England shall then indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith!
We would be true to Thee till death.
The tune for this hymn, a melody known as “St. Catherine’s Tune,” was composed by a noted Roman Catholic, Henri Hemy, born at New Castle-Upon-Tyne, England, on November 1`2, 1818. He was a respected organist and composer at the church at Tynemouth and in 1864 compiled a popular Catholic hymnal, Crown of Jesus. The tune was originally composed for a Catholic hymn entitled “St. Catherine, Virgin and Martyr.” It was written in honor of Catherine of Alexander, a fourth century martyr. The final eight measures or refrain- “Faith of our fathers, holy faith, we will be true to Thee till death” were added by James G. Walton, when he made a new arrangement and used it for his collection, Plain Song Music for the Holy Communion Office, published in 1874.
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the kindness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice
Which is more than liberty.
“There is welcome for the sinner
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.
“For the love of god is broader
Than the measure of Man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
“If our love were but more simple
We should take Him at His word,
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.”
Written by Frederick Faber in 1862 (101 More Hymn Stories, No. 89)
Used by permission 101 Hymn Stories Kregel Publications
It Is Well With My Soul
Author: Horatio G. Spafford, 1828-1888
Music- Philip P. Bliss, 1838-1876
Meter- 11 8 11 9 with Chorus
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1
This beloved hymn was written by a Presbyterian layman form Chicago named Horatio G. Spafford who born in North Troy, New York, on October 20, 1828. As a young man Spafford had established a successful legal practice in Chicago. Along with his financial success, he always s maintained a keen interest in Christian activities. He enjoyed a close and active relationship with D. L. Moody and other evangelical leaders of that era. He was described by George Stebbins, a noted gospel musician, as a “Man of unusual intelligence and refinement, deeply spiritual, and a devoted student of the Scriptures.”
Some months prior to the Chicago Fire of 1871, Spafford had invested heavily in real estate on the shore of Lake Michigan, and his holdings were wiped out by this disaster. Desiring a rest for his wife and four daughters as well as wishing to assist Moody and Sankey in one of their campaigns in Great Britain, Spafford planned a European trip for this family in November of 1873. Due to unexpected las minute business developments, he had to remain in Chicago, but he sent his wife and four daughters on ahead as scheduled on the S.S. Ville du Havre. He expected to follow in a few days. On November 22 the ship was struck by the Locheam, an English vessel, and sank in twelve minutes. Several days later the survivors were finally landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband, “Saved alone.” Shortly afterward Spafford left by ship to join his bereaved wife. It is thought that on the sea near the area where his four daughters had drowned, Spafford penned this text whose words so significantly describe his own personal grief- “When sorrows like sea billows roll…” Is is noteworthy, however, that Spafford’s hymn does not dwell on the theme of life’s sorrows and trials but focuses attention in the third stanza on the redemptive work of Christ and in the fourth stanza anticipates His glorious Second Coming. Humanly speaking, it is amazing that one could experience such personal tragedies and sorrows as Horatio Spafford did and still be able to say with such a convincing clarity, “It is well with my soul.”
In 1881 the Spafford’s fulfilled a life-long interest in the Holy Land. They left Chicago with their two young daughters and a group of friends and settled in Jerusalem. There they established the American Colony which cared for the sick and destitute. Although Horatio died just eight years later at the age of sixty, this significant ministry continued. The story of this special family and their ministry is told in the book, Our Jerusalem, written by the Spafford’s daughter, Bertha Spafford Vesper.
Philip P. Bliss was so impressed with the experience and expression of Spafford’s text that he shortly wrote the music for it, first published in one of the Sankey-Bliss Hymnals, Gospel Hymns No. Two, in 1876. Bliss was a prolific writer of gospel songs throughout his brief lifetime. In most cases he wrote both the words and music for his hymns. His songs, like most early gospel hymnody, are strong in emotional appeal with tunes that are easily learned and sung…
Other hymns by Philip P. Bliss include “Hold the Fort” (No. 30), “I Give My Life for Thee” (No. 34), “Jesus Loves Even Me” (No. 46), “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning” (101 More Hymn Stories, No. 55), and “Once for All” (ibid., No. 72)
Used by permission 101 More Hymn Stories Kregel Publications
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
Author- Joseph Scriven, 1819-1886
Composer- Charles C. Converse, 1832-1918
Tune Name- “Converse”
Meter- 87.87 Doubled
« A man that hath friends must show himself friendly: And there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” Proverbs 18:24
Someone has well penned this statement, “A Christian’s practical theology is often his hymnology.” Many of us could attest to this truth as we recall some deeply moving experience- perhaps the loss of a dear loved one- and a simple hymn which has been used by the Holy Spirit to minister to our spiritual need.
Such a hymn is “What a Friend We Have in Jesus. “Though it is not considered to be an example of great literary writing, its simply stated truths have brought solace and comfort to countless numbers of God’s people since it was first written in 1857. So relevant to the basic spiritual needs of people are these words that many missionaries state that it is one of the first hymns taught to new converts. The very simplicity of the text and music has been its appeal and strength.
Joseph Scriven was born in 181 9 of prosperous parents in Dublin, Ireland. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. At the age of twenty-five he decided to leave his native country and migrate to Canada. His reasons for leaving his family and country seem to be two-fold: the religious influence of the Plymouth Brethren upon his life estranging him from his family and the accidental drowning of this fiancée the night before their scheduled wedding.
Form that time Scriven developed a totally different pattern of life. He stood the Sermon on the Mount literally. It is said that he gave freely of this limited possessions, even sharing the clothing from his own body, if necessary, and never once refused to help anyone who needed it. Ira of Port Hope, Ontario, with his sawbuck and saw, asked, “Who is that man? I want him to work for me. “The answer was, “You cannot get that man; he saws wood only for poor widows and sick people who cannot pay.” Because of this manner of life Scriven was respected but was considered to be eccentric by those who knew him.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” was never intended by Scriven for publication. Upon learning of his mother’s serious illness and unable to be with her n far-off Dublin, he wrote a letter of comfort enclosing the words of this text. Sometime later when he himself was ill, a friend who came to call on him chance dot see the poem scribbled on scratch paper near the bed. The friend read it with keen interest and asked Scriven if he had written the words. Scriven, with the typical modesty, replied, “The Lord and I did it between us.” In 1869 a small collection of his poems was published. It was simply entitled Hymns and Other Verses.
After the death of Joseph Scriven, Also by accidental drowning, the citizens of Port Hope, Ontario, erected a monument of the Port Hope-Peterborough Highway, which runs from Lake Ontario, with the text and these words inscribed:
Four miles north, in Pengally’s Cemetery, lies the philanthropist and author of this great masterpiece, written at Port Hope, 1857.
The composer of the music,
Charles C. Converse, was a wee-educated versatile and successful Christian, whose talents ranged from law to professional music. Under the pen name of Karl Reden, he wrote numerous and scholarly articles on many subjects. Though he was an excellent musician and composer with many of this works performed by the leading American orchestras and choirs of his day, his life is best remembered for this simple music so well suited to Scriven’s text.
Ira D. Sankey discovered the hymn in 1875, just in time to include it in his well-known collection, Sankey’s Gospel Hymns Number One. Later Sankey wrote, “The last hymn which went into the book became of the first in favor.”
Used by permission 101 Hymn Stories Kregel Publications
O Love That Will Not Let Me Go
Author- George Matheson, 1842-1906
Composer- Albert L. Peace, 1844-1912
Tune Name- “St. Margaret”
“I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” Jeremiah 31:3
This hymn is generally considered to be one of the best-loved hymns written during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The writing of this thoughtful and artistically constructed text is even more remarkable when it is remembered that it was authored by on e who was totally blind and who describes the writing as the “fruit of much mental suffering.”
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, March 27, 1842, George Matheson had only partial vision as a boy. After he entered Glasgow University, his sight failed rapidly and he became totally blind at the age of eighteen. Despite this handicap he was a brilliant scholar and finished the University and the Seminary of the Church of Scotland with high honors. In 1886 he became pastor of the 2,000member ST. Bernard’s Parish Church in Edinburgh. He went on to become known as one of Scotland’s’ outstanding preachers and pastor, greatly esteemed in Edinburgh, where his eloquent preaching consistently attracted large crowds. Matheson never married, but throughout his fruitful ministry he was aided by a devoted sister, who herself learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in order to aid him in his theological studies. She was his faithful co-worker and helper throughout his life, assisting in his calling and other pastoral duties.
Many conjectures have been made regarding the cause of the mental distress which prompted the author to write his next. A very popular account that, although never substantiated, is that this text was an outgrowth of Matheson’s fiancée’s leaving him just before their marriage when she learned of his impending total blindness. Although this story cannot be documented, there are many significant hints in this hymn reflecting a saddened heart, such as the “flickering torch” and the “borrowed ray” in the second stanza, the tracing of the “rainbow through the rain” in the their stanza, as well as the “cross’ in the last verse. Fortunately, Dr. Matheson did leave an account of his writing of this hymn:
My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. I was at that time alone. It was the day of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which cause me the most several mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was composed in five minutes, and equally sure it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring form on high. I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse.
The hymn first appeared in the Church of Scotland monthly magazine, Life and Work, in January, 1883. The tune was composed one year later by a prominent Scotch organist of this day, Albert L. Peace, who was requested by the Scottish Hymnal Committee to write a tune especially for Matheson’s text. Peace’s own account of the writing of this fine tune is as follows, “After reading it over carefully, I wrote the music straight off, and may say that the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune.”
The significance of the tune name, “St. Margaret,” is unknown except that it is a name greatly revered in Scotland, no doubt because of the beloved Queen Margaret, who was canonized in 1251.
The later years of Matheson’s life were spent in writing some of the finest devotional literature in the English language, including Moments on the Mount, Voice of the Spirit, and Rests by the River. Although this is his only hymn found in most evangelical hymnals, Matheson did write a number other fine hymns, including a thoughtful text entitled “Make Ma a Captive Lord, and Then I Shall Be Free.”
The four key words or symbols of “O Love, That Wilt Not Let Me Go” are Love, Light, Joy, Cross. These words have been described as the total fulfillment of any believer whose life is totally committed to the will of God. One could probe for considerable time the depth and personal significance of these four expressions.
Used by permission 101 Hymn Stories Kregel Publications
Near to the Heart of God
(A Quiet Place/Near to the Heart of God Medley)
Author and Composer- Cleland B. McAfee, 1866-1944
“Draw night to God, and He will draw nigh to you…” James 4:8
One simple but valid definition of an effective hymn might be: “A spiritual expression that comes from the heart and then reaches the hearts of others. “This particular hymn could certainly be cited as a good example of that truth.
“Near to the Heart of God” was written and composed by Cleland B. McAfee, in 1901, while he was pastoring the large First Presbyterian Church of Chicago, Illinois., He received the news one day that diphtheria had just claimed the lives of this two beloved nieces, and while in his saddened, shocked state, he wrote this hymn, as a comfort for his own soul as well as for the other members of his family. He first sang it with choking voice just outside the darkened, quarantined house of his brother, Howard, the day of the double funeral. The following Sunday, McAfee’s choir repeated it as a communion hymn at his own church service. Another brother, Lapsley, was so impressed, with the simple but comforting message of the hymn, that he carried it back to his pastorate, The First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. From that time to the present it has continued to be a source of great encouragement to believers, everywhere.
Cleland Boyd McAfee was born on September 25, 1866, at Ashley, Missouri. He received his theological training at the Union Theological Seminary. Later, he returned to his undergraduate school, Part College in Parkville, Missouri, and served as a teacher and pastor of the college church, form 881 to 1901. He then served two successful pastorates, the First Presbyterian Church, Brooklyn, New York. From 1911201930, he was professor of systematic theology at the McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. He was known as an eminent theologian, a brilliant speaker, author of a number of books and learned papers, and was honored by this denomination to serve as the elected moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Yet today, Dr. McAfee is best remembered for this one simple, unassuming, devotional hymn.
After his retirement, Dr. McAfee made his home at Jaffrey, New Hampshire, where he remained active with this writing, lecturing, preaching, and teaching until his death on February 4, 1944.
The hymn in its present form first appeared, in 1903, in a magazine called The Choir Leader, published by the Lorenz Publishing Company of Dayton, Ohio. It has appeared in nearly every published evangelical hymnal to the present time.
“When I am with God, my fear is gone
In the great quiet of God.
My troubles are as the pebbles on the road
My joys are like the everlasting hills.”
Walter Rauschenbusch: The Little Gate to God
“Mid all the traffic of the way,
Turmoil without, within;
Make of my heart a quiet place,
And come and dwell therein.”
Used by permission 101 More Hymn Stories Kregel Publications