How often we join in the singing of the old hymns we love, hymns which are indelibly imprinted on the heart, and have become blessedly precious to us in the many vicissitudes of life’s chequered pathway. Hymns which have radiated like a beacon light, piercing the gloom and brightening the way; soul-breathings which, all unconsciously draw us nearer and still nearer to Him, the source of all our song. And yet, familiar though we may be with the hymn book, it is seldom we are able to glance beyond the hymn to the one whom God has used to pen these gems of heavenly song. Around the hymn and the hymn writer many romantic stories have been woven concerning the circumstances under which some hymn or other was written. Not always is a hymn born out of any particular experience through which the author has passed. Such cases, however, do exist. Yet the stories frequently told are pure fancy, started by one and augmented by another, until they become almost a reality to many who hear them for the first time. Many and interesting are the anecdotes attached to a hymn through its use, which, no doubt, has become precedence instead of sequence, in their telling. For example, various accounts have been given as the origin of Charles Wesley’s immortal hymn, “Jesus, Lover of my soul.” One is, that as he sat in his study on a summer day, a little bird, pursued by a hawk, flew into the open window, and sought refuge in his bosom where the baffled hawk did not dare to follow. This incident, it is said, set him musing on the best and indeed the only refuge for sinful souls. Another, that a narrow escape from death in a violent storm on the Atlantic inspired him to portray the thoughts of a Christian in deadly peril. These and similar stories, charming and romantic though they may appear, have no foundation of fact, and the most that can be said is that the immortal hymn was written shortly after the great spiritual change which the author underwent in 1738. Its popularity does not wane with age, but on the contrary, increases with each succeeding generation, and to-day it is to be found in the hymn books of practically all English-speaking countries.
Charles Wesley was born at Epworth Rectory in Lincolnshire, in 1707, and died in 1788. He is credited with having written more than 6,000 hymns, and his strenuous advocacy of the use of hymns in public worship, in conjunction with his famous brother, John, powerfully influenced the course of English hymnody.
The companion hymn of “Jesus, Lover of my soul,” has an equally attractive history. What appears to be accepted as the authentic circumstances under which “Rock of Ages “was written has often been told, but will bear recording here. Augustus Montague Toplady, sometime curate-in-charge of the parish of Blagdon, on the Mendips, about eight miles from Wells, was one day overtaken by a severe thunderstorm in Burrington Combe, a rocky glen which runs up into the heart of the Mendip Range. There being no habitation near at hand, he took refuge between two massive pillars of rock. At one point of the rugged slopes of grey rock, there is a precipitous crag of limestone, about a hundred feet in height, and right down its centre is a deep fissure. It was here, sheltering from the fury of the storm, that Toplady penned the famous hymn:
“Rock of Ages cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure:
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.”
Toplady was the son of a major in the British army, who died at the siege of Carthagena in 1740, leaving his infant son to the care of a tender but judicious mother. When only a lad of sixteen, Toplady was converted in a barn in Ireland. He was travelling with his mother, when, passing a barn, he heard singing. Looking in he observed a few humble country people gathered together. When the hymn ended, a plain, uneducated man, stood up to speak, taking for his text, “Ye, who sometimes were far off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:13.) That sermon was used of God in the salvation of his soul.
“Rock of Ages “was first published in 1775, only three years before the author’s death, which occurred on August 11th, 1778, at the comparatively early age of thirty-eight.
It was a great favourite of Mr. W. E. Gladstone, who translated it into Latin, Greek and Italian. As the Prince Consort lay dying, his lips feebly uttered the sweet words of Toplady’s hymn. And thus it happened that the Prince, in his latest hour, laid hold on those precious thoughts which had their birth in the simple but faithful discourse of an obscure and unlettered layman in an Irish barn.
Of “Rock of Ages,” Dr. Julian says, “No other English hymn can be named, which has laid so broad and firm a grasp of the English-speaking world.”
Though Henry Francis Lyte wrote many beautiful hymns, his last composition, “Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide,” proved to be the best known and most widely used of all. He was born at the village of Ednam, near Kelso, on the Scottish border, on June ist, 1793. It is surely to the credit of this little village on the banks of the Tweed, that it gave birth also to James Thomson, the author of “Rule Britannia,” and Thomas Campbell the poet, who wrote “Ye mariners of England.”
Intended for the medical profession, his plans were changed, and Lyte was ordained a clergyman in the Church of England at the age of twenty-three. Filling several curacies, he eventually became Vicar of All Saints, Brixham, in South Devon, where, for nearly a quarter of a century, he laboured faithfully amongst the rough seafaring population to whom he had become greatly endeared. Mr. Lyte never enjoyed robust health, and in the autumn of 1847 the increased weakness of his constitution, brought about by his faithful devotion to his beloved flock, demanded a complete change, and the doctors ordered his removal to the South of France that he might spend the winter in a more congenial clime. A few days before leaving home, he wrote: “I am meditating flight again to the south. The little faithful robin is every morning at my window warning me that autumnal hours are at hand. The swallows are preparing for flight, and inviting me to accompany them; and yet, alas! while I am talking of flying, I am just able to crawl, and I often ask myself whether I shall be able to leave England at all.”
On the Sunday previous to his departure, though in great weakness of body, he made an effort to address his beloved flock once more. His subject was “Holy Communion,” and earnestly did he beseech his hearers to acquaint themselves with the Lord Jesus Christ: that they might place their trust in His sacrificial death on Calvary. He had preached his last sermon. The severe strain of the service, followed by the painful leave-taking of his sorrowing parishioners, greatly exhausted the faithful pastor, and he was led home in much weakness. All that afternoon he rested his soul in sweet repose, pondering over the farewell words he had so lately addressed to his congregation. In the evening of that beautiful September day, in 1847, he left the house alone, and wandered for an hour among the rocks and flowers in the grounds of his home at Berry Head, until dark.
It happened that on that particular night there was one of those glorious sunsets which are sometimes to be seen at Torbay. “The sun was setting in a blaze of glory, and the purple hills of distant Dartmoor stood out darkly against a flaming sky.” In the foreground was Brixham harbour, calm and peaceful. Several times Mr. Lyte stopped to rest and to gaze on the wonderful manifestation of nature. His feelings can well be imagined. The dying day would no doubt remind him insistently of his life which was swiftly drawing to a close. It was during this evening walk that the poet was filled with a fervent desire to write one message of consolation to humanity which would be enduring, and returning to his study Lyte wrote the immortal hymn. Before retiring to rest he handed to his daughter, Mrs. Hogg, the manuscript bearing the undying lines:
“Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide:
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me!”
On the following day he left home for Nice, where, a few weeks later, he passed away. As he neared the end, a smile illuminated his placid face, and pointing upwards, he whispered softly, “Peace! Joy!”
F. A. Jones, in his delightful book, Famous Hymns and their Authors, tells in a very entertaining manner of his casual meeting, over forty years ago, with an old member of Mr. Lyte’s choir. As the two sat on the old pier at Brixham, watching the trawlers setting sail for the fishing grounds, the old man chatted animatedly about the late hymnist, evidently well pleased to find some one who took an interest in a man of whom he was palpably never tired of talking. “I was a member of Mr. Lyte’s choir,” he said, “in 1846; I and a dozen others, all dead now. We were deeply attached to him. He had the gentlest expression and most winning manner possible, and yet I suppose we caused him more grief than all his trouble of ill-health. We left his choir and gave up teaching in the Sunday School, and though I should probably do the same thing to-morrow under similar circumstance, it gives me a feeling of intense sadness even now when I think of it. This is how it came about. A short while before he left us to go to Nice, some influencial members of the Plymouth Brethren visited Brixham and persuaded ten of us to join them. After due deliberation we went in a body to Mr. Lyte and told him that we intended to leave his church. He took it calmly enough, although we practically constituted his entire choir, and said that nothing would be further from his thoughts than to stand between us and our consciences. He bade us think the matter over very seriously and come to him again in a few days. We did so, but our decision remained unaltered. We left him, and never entered his church again. When ‘Abide with me’ came to be written, each of us was given a copy, and then we realized, perhaps more keenly than any one else, the true meaning of the words:
‘When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.’”
A few years ago, when, at the King’s express wish, this hymn was sung at the Wembley Stadium, by nearly a hundred thousand people, His Majesty described it as “a most impressive experience.” The sweet solemnity, sacred grandeur, and pathetic strains of “Abide with me,” thrill the soul to its depths. It has strengthened and consoled millions of people, and will continue its gracious ministry throughout all time.
How the familiar hymn, “Blest be the tie that binds,” came to be written is an interesting story. Dr. John Fawcett was pastor of a small and poor Baptist Church, at Wainsgate, in Yorkshire, from which he derived a salary barely adequate to live upon; and his family increasing far more rapidly than his income, he thought it his duty to accept a call which he received in 1772, to a large and influential church in London, to succeed the celebrated Dr. Gill. He preached his farewell sermon, and began loading his belongings on several wagons for removal to his new residence. The sorrowing members of his poor church, unable to control the grief that filled their hearts, pleaded with him that even now he might not leave them, and when at last all was ready for departure the warm hearted Yorkshire folks clung around their pastor and his family with an affection almost beyond description. Completely overcome at such unmistakable evidence of attachment, the good man and his wife sat down on one of the packing cases and wept. “Oh, John, John, I cannot bear this!” cried the poor wife, “I know not how to go! “Nor I, either,” said the good man; “nor will we go. Unload the wagons, and put everything in the place where it was before.” His decision was hailed with great joy by the people. A letter was immediately despatched to the London church intimating that his coming was impossible, and the good man went to work with renewed energy, happy to remain with his poor but attached country congregation, “passing rich” on £25 a year.
It was to commemorate this event that Dr. Fawcett wrote the words of the hymn now so familiar:
“Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
* * * * *
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathising tear.”
The story of how “God moves in a mysterious way” came to be written is an oft-told tale, and yet this volume would not be complete without its inclusion. William Cowper, the poet, was born at the Rectory of Berkhampstead, on November 26th, 1731. In his boyhood he was of a sensitive, shy, and nervous temperament, and in later life was given to fits of temporary insanity. During one of these painful experiences, he became possessed with the idea that he should go to a particular part of the River Ouse and drown himself. He hired a post chaise for that purpose and started. The night was dark, and the coachman purposely losing his way, brought the poet safely back to his home again. By this time the cloud seemed to have lifted from his mind, and in deep contrition and thankfulness to God for his deliverance from danger and from death, he wrote this hymn, which, for more than a century and a half, has brought comfort and consolation to many a troubled soul:
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
* * * * *
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take!
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy; and shall break
In blessings on your head.”
Of this hymn Montgomery says, “It is a lyric of high tone and character, and rendered awfully interesting by the circumstances under which it was written, in the twilight of departing reason.”
Some of the happiest years of Cowper’s chequered life were spent at Olney in sweet fellowship with his devoted friend John Newton, in conjunction with whom were written the famous Olney Hymns. He died on April 25th, 1800.
Of the three hundred and forty-eight “Olney Hymns,” Cowper wrote sixty-eight. Possibly his most widely used hymn is “There is a fountain filled with blood,” which is still a general favourite, particularly at mission services. Others equally well known are: “O for a closer walk with God,” “Hark, my soul! it is the Lord,” “Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,” and “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian when he sings.” Cowper’s hymns are set in a plaintive key, and lack the joyous note of gladness to be felt in the compositions of his contemporaries. The last mentioned hymn is rather an exception, and strikes a brighter note.
The best known of all missionary hymns, “From Greenland’s icy mountains,” is probably one of the most unique examples of spontaneous writing on
record, for, from the moment Reginald Heber took up his pen till the hymn was completed, the time occupied was only twenty minutes. And the only alteration the author ever made was to substitute the word “heathen” for “savage” in the second verse. Heber, at that time Rector of Hodnet, was on a visit to his father-in-law, Dr. Shipley, Dean of St. Asaph and Vicar of Wrexham. It was the Saturday before Whitsunday, 1819, the day upon which a collection was to be taken in aid of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, and they being together with a few friends in the Vicarage library, the Dean requested his son-in-law to write something suitable to be sung at the missionary service next morning. Heber, having procured writing material, immediately retired to the far end of the room. In a short time the Dean called out to know what he had written, whereon Heber read over the first three verses. “There, there, that will do very well,” said the Dean. Heber, however, was not satisfied, remarking that the sense was not yet complete; and again taking up his pen, in a few minutes wrote the fourth verse:
“Waft, waft ye winds His story,
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till like a sea of glory
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o’er our ransomed nature
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign.”
To Heber’s repeated request to be allowed to add yet another verse, the Dean was inexorable. It was sung for the first time the next morning in Wrexham church to the old ballad tune, “’Twas when the sea was roaring,” but has since been set to more appropriate music. “The original manuscript of ‘From Greenland’s icy mountains,’” says F. A. Jones, “was for many years in the possession of the late Dr. Raffles, of Liverpool, himself a hymn writer of some note. Popular tradition round Wrexham has it that a compositor in the printing works sold the MS. for a pint of ale; but it is far more likely that Dr. Raffles obtained it direct from the printer who was a personal friend of his. A few years since, Dr. Raffles’ effects were sold, and among the objects of interest put up for auction was this identical MS. After some spirited bidding it was ‘knocked down’ to an unknown buyer for the sum of forty guineas. On the authority of the auctioneer the MS. is now in America.”
During the visit of H.R.H. The Prince of Wales to Ceylon, in the spring of 1922, a paragraph relating to this hymn, which received some prominence in the Press at the time, attracted my attention. Under the headline, “Only Man is Vile,” some enterprising journalist had written:
“The Cingalese, who have given the Prince of Wales such a hearty reception, have shown some warrantable resentment of the verse of a famous hymn which describes Ceylon as a place where ‘only man is vile.’ Bishop Heber, in writing the hymn, seems to have allowed animosity as well as devotion to colour his phrases, for the libellous line is said to have been written just after he had discovered himself to have been cleverly cheated by a Cingalese tradesman.”
It would not be a difficult matter to show that this fantastic and highly coloured story regarding the origin of the famous hymn is sheer imagination, and that Reginald Heber was in no way prompted to pen the supposed offensive line in a spirit of animosity, on finding himself “cleverly cheated by a Cingalese tradesman,” for up to that time the hymnist had not set eyes on so interesting a personage as a tradesman from Ceylon’s Isle. As we have seen, the hymn was written at Wrexham, in 1819, just four years before Heber accepted the Bishopric of Calcutta, so that the picture of the good Bishop being swindled by a dusky native at once loses its colour. One also wonders if it be actually the case, as the paragraph states, that those very fastidious natives have really shown “some warrantable resentment” of the line, which, as asserted, describes Ceylon as a place ‘where only man is vile.’ A more careful study of the second verse which contains the offending line will, I think, show that Heber had a wider field in his intellectual vision than Ceylon’s Isle.
Exception has been taken to the line, “What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s Isle.” As we have already stated, Heber had not visited Ceylon at the time the hymn was written, and it is interesting to read an extract from his journal of a visit to India, written four years after the composition of the hymn. “Though we were now too far off Ceylon to catch the odours of the land, yet it is, we are assured, perfectly true that such odours are perceptible to a very considerable distance. In the Straits of Malacca a smell like that of a hawthorn hedge is commonly experienced; and from Ceylon, at thirty or forty miles, under certain circumstances, a yet more agreeable scent is inhaled.”
For about three years Heber pursued the strenuous duties of a missionary bishop, and died at Trichinopoly in April, 1826.
As a hymn writer Reginald Heber occupies a high place. Of his fifty-seven compositions, nearly all are in use: an honour which has fallen to the lot of very few hymn writers. Among the best known are, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!” “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,” “The Son of God goes forth to war,” and “Thou art gone to the grave,” a funeral hymn written after the death of his infant child.
Though manners and customs change with the march of time, there is happily still to be heard in many of our towns and villages, the cheerful strains of old-time Christmas carols. Chief amongst those which have survived, is “Christians awake, salute the happy morn! “It was written nearly two hundred years ago to suit the whim of a spoilt child. And little did John Byrom realise as he playfully presented to his favourite daughter, Dolly, one Christmas morning, a neatly folded sheet of note paper, on which were written the verses, that the hymn would become famous. It is dedicated by the author to Dolly, the fond father having promised to provide the little maid with a carol for Christmas Day. A year or two later, the manuscript coming into the hands of John Wainwright, organist of Manchester Old Parish Church, he set the words to the tune now so familiar. On the Christmas Eve following, Wainwright took his choristers over to Kersal Cell, the home of Byrom, and they sang the hymn for the first time as they stood round the old doorway, while the author, taken entirely by surprise, listened entranced within. The original manuscript, creased and worn, is now carefully preserved in the Chetham Library at Manchester. It is written on an ordinary sheet of notepaper, and is headed “Christmas Day for Dolly.”
I am indebted to Mr. Chas. T. E. Phillips, librarian, who had the interesting document photographed for this work, and the illustration is used through the courtesy of the Feoffees of Chetham’s Library.
In connection with this famous hymn an interesting discovery was made some years ago in a garden at Stockport, adjoining the church. While preparing the foundations of a new greenhouse, the owner came upon a gravestone about a foot and a half below the surface of the ground. On examination it was found to bear the inscription:
“Here lieth John Wainwright,
Organist, Parish Church, Manchester,
died January 17.”
It proved to be the gravestone of Wainwright, the composer of the music of “Christians Awake!” A portion of the slab which bore the date was broken off. John Wainwright was buried in Stockport churchyard in 1768. When the church was being restored in 1810 it was found necessary to use explosives for the demolition of the tower, and during the operations many of the gravestones were broken and displaced.
But to return to Byrom. He was born in 1691 on the outskirts of Manchester, in a house still known as Kersal Cell. It was originally a monastic cell, and there still exist traces of an ancient chapel within the building. Byrom appears to have been a somewhat remarkable personality, and though he wrote much verse, it is probable his name would have been forgotten but for “Christians Awake! “During his lifetime Byrom invented a system of shorthand, which he taught, among his pupils being Horace Walpole and Charles Wesley. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he took his B.A. in 1712, becoming a Fellow in 1714. He studied medicine, but never attempted to qualify as a medical practitioner. Amongst his friends he was known as the Poet Laureate of the Jacobites, and many a witty and clever rhyme, which on more than one occasion got him into trouble, came from his pen.
Byrom died in 1763, at the age of 72, and is buried in Manchester Cathedral.
When John Henry Newman, in an anxious moment, took up pencil and paper and scribbled some verses, giving expression to the doubts that distressed him, as well as the mental darkness that he at that time experienced, he little dreamed that birth had been given to a hymn which would live to be sung by people of almost every clime and tongue. That hymn begins:
“Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.”
In the early summer of 1833, Newman, who was at that time Incumbent of St. Mary’s Church, Oxford, paid a visit to Rome, where he saw and heard much that was to influence his life in years to come. On his homeward journey he became dangerously ill of fever, which necessitated a stay of about three weeks in Sicily, during which time the only friend at hand to tend to his wants was his faithful servant, who watched over him night and day. Upon his recovery, Newman took passage on an orange boat for Marseilles, being under the impression that he must at once return to England and begin a reformation of the Church in accordance with his peculiar views. Of this historic journey Cardinal Newman afterwards wrote: “Towards the end of May I set off for Palermo, taking three days for the journey. Before starting from my inn in the morning, I sat down on my bed and began to sob bitterly. My servant, who had acted as my nurse, asked what ailed me. I could only answer, ‘I have a work to do in England.’ I was aching to get home, yet for want of a vessel I was kept at Palermo for three weeks. I began to visit the churches and they calmed my impatience. At last I got off in an orange boat bound for Marseilles. We were becalmed for a whole week in the Straits of Bonifacio. Then it was I wrote the lines ‘Lead, kindly Light,’ which have since become so well known.” Much controversy has taken place from time to time over the meaning of the two closing lines of the hymn:
“And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.”
In 1879, on being asked to solve the problem, the author is said to have replied that he was not bound to remember his own meaning after the lapse of almost fifty years!
The vicar of an English parish church once wrote to the celebrated Dean Alford of Canterbury Cathedral, asking him if he would compose a hymn and tune to be sung in the procession at a choral festival. The Dean consented, and sent his friend a hymn which was quite unsuitable for a march. In writing back, the Vicar cautiously advised the good Dean to go into his Cathedral, walk slowly along the course the procession would take and compose as he marched. Dean Alford, not in the least offended, did so, and produced the hymn, beginning:
“Forward! be our watchword,
Steps and voices joined,
Seek the things before us,
Not a look behind.”
The second line is a reminder to the vicar of the place and manner in which the hymn was composed.
Besides writing the words, the Dean composed the treble and bass of the tune to which it was originally sung, humorously remarking to his friend, that he had supplied the hymn with hat and boots, so it was up to him to provide its coat and trousers.
To Dean Alford we are indebted not only for his scholarly expository on the New Testament, but also for some classic hymns to be found in most present-day hymnals. He died at his deanery on January 12th, 1871.
The hymn “Stand up! Stand up for Jesus! “which, for the last fifty years has been sung the world over, was suggested to the author by the dying message of Dudley A. Tyng, the faithful minister of Epiphany Church, Philadelphia, during the great Revival of 1859. Mr. Tyng was the leader of a remarkable mission in connection with the Young Men’s Christian Association of Philadelphia. The Sunday before his death was a memorable one, when there assembled in Jaynes Hall, five thousand men to hear what proved to be one of the most impressive sermons ever preached; and it is said that out of those present at least a thousand were converted.
A few days later, while watching a mule at work on a horse-power machine, threshing corn, Mr. Tyng happened to step forward to pat the animal on the neck, when the sleeve of his coat became entangled in the wheels, and his arm was torn off. He died soon after. Just before he passed away he sent the message to those assembled at the Y.M.C.A. prayer meeting held that evening, “Tell them to stand up for Jesus!” George Duffield preached the funeral sermon for his friend, concluding with the exhortation in Ephesians 6:14. Soon afterwards he composed the stirring hymn:
“Stand up! stand up for Jesus!
Ye soldiers of the Cross;
Lift high His royal banner,
It must not suffer loss;
From victory unto victory
His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished,
And Christ is Lord indeed.”
The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, was one of the most prolific writers of his day. Versatile in gifts and strenuous in application, he has crowded great achievements into his long years. A student of mediaeval lore, history and theology, in which he has been greatly aided by extensive travels and researches in Europe, he was an authoritative writer in these fields, and has well over a hundred volumes to his credit. It is at least probable, however, that he will go down to posterity as the author of one hymn. “Onward Christian soldiers” is known in all parts of the English-speaking world. The hymn was originally written in 1865 for a Sunday School festival in connection with his church at Horbury Bridge, Yorkshire, of which Mr. Baring-Gould was at that time the incumbent. In 1895 he said regarding its composition: “Whit-Monday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire. On Whit-Monday, thirty years ago, it was arranged that our school should join forces with that of a neighbouring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to another, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable; so I sat up all night, resolved that I would write something myself. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was the result. It was written in great haste, and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its popularity. I don’t remember how it got printed first, but I know that very soon it found its way into several collections. I have written a few other hymns since, but only two or three have become at all well known.”
“Onward Christian soldiers” was on that occasion sung to Gauntlet’s tune, for Sullivan had not then composed that stirring march, which in no small measure has contributed to the immense popularity of the hymn.
About eighteen years ago, during some correspondence with the author in connection with his famous hymn, Mr. Baring-Gould kindly sent me an autograph copy of the chorus of “Onward Christian soldiers,” which I am able to have reproduced here.
Insert pic ***
The likeness of S. Baring-Gould was sent to me by the noted hymnist some years later. It is from a portrait by Mr. Melton Fisher, R.A., and was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1921.
A little-known chapter in the career of this noted hymnist relates to the West Riding. In 1864, while curate, he opened a night school for miners and artizans at Horbury Bridge. Then he built a mission chapel, which first of all heard the sweet evening hymn, “Now the day is over.”
S. Baring-Gould died in January, 1924, at the advanced age of ninety years.
“Hold the Fort” is a hymn which at once sprung into great favour over half a century ago, as a splendid rallying song, and maintained its popularity for many years. It had its origin in the following historic incident which occurred during the American Civil War: “Just before Sherman began his famous march to the sea in 1864, and while his army lay camped in the neighbourhood of Atlanta on the 5th of October, the army of Hood, in a carefully prepared movement, passed the right flank of Sherman’s army, gained his rear, and commenced the destruction of the railway leading north, burning blockhouses and capturing the small garrisons along the line. Sherman’s army was put in rapid motion pursuing Hood, to save the supplies and larger posts, the principal one of which was located at Altoona Pass. General Corse was stationed here with about 1,500 men. A million and a half of rations were stored here, and it was highly important that the earthworks commanding the pass and protecting the supplies should be held. Six thousand men under the command of General French were detailed by Hood to take the position. The works were completely surrounded and summoned to surrender. Corse refused and a sharp fight commenced. The defenders were slowly driven into a small fort on the crest of the hill. Many had fallen, and the result seemed to render a prolongation of the fight hopeless. At this moment an officer caught sight of a white signal flag far away across the valley, twenty miles distant, upon the top of Kenesaw Mountain. The signal was answered, and soon the message was waved across from mountain to mountain: ‘Hold the fort; I am coming!’ It was the message of General Sherman. Cheers went up; every man was nerved to a full appreciation of the position; and under a murderous fire, which killed or wounded more than half the garrison, they held the fort for three hours until the advance guard of Sherman’s army came up. The attacking force was obliged to retreat.”
Major Whittle related this incident at a Sunday School conference when Mr. P. P. Bliss was present, and the song “Hold the Fort “was born in his mind. The same night Bliss wrote the words and music of the now popular song.
Next day at a young people’s meeting he went on to the platform, and writing the chorus of the hymn on the blackboard, sang the verses for the first time in public, the audience joining in the chorus.
No other hymn attained a greater popularity wherever it was sung during the Torrey-Alexander Gospel tour of the world over twenty-five years ago, than “The Glory Song.” It has been translated into more than a score of languages and dialects, and it is said that more than a hundred million copies have been printed. When I asked Charles H. Gabriel, the author, to tell me something of its origin, he wrote: “‘The Glory Song’ was prompted by the slogan of a good old soul we called ‘Old Glory Face.’ The one safety valve of his pent-up enthusiasm in praise of his Lord was the single exclamation—‘Glory!’ And it was good to hear him shout it—not in a harsh, raucous tone of voice, yet distinctly and with a charm of earnestness that carried a conviction of holy reverence to all who heard. To hear him pray was to see the gates of heaven open, and to be drawn nearer to the God he served, his prayer invariably ended with: ‘and that will be glory for me!’ ‘Old Glory Face’ is in heaven now, but he lived to sing ‘The Glory Song,’ and to know that out of his life, before men, came the inspiration that gave the song to the world.”
Though it cannot be termed a famous hymn, “The Harbour Bell” has gained no small amount of popularity as a Gospel song, and has been found useful in meetings held specially for seafaring men:
“Our life is like a stormy sea,
Swept by the gales of sin and grief;
While on the windward and the lee,
Hang heavy clouds of unbelief.”
John H. Yates, a layman in humble circumstances who lived in New York, wrote this hymn about the year 1891, after reading in a newspaper the following incident, which had been narrated by one of the passengers. “We were nearing a dangerous coast as the night was approaching. Suddenly a heavy fog settled down upon us. No lights had been sighted, and the pilot seemed anxious and troubled, not knowing how soon we might be dashed to pieces on the hidden rocks along the shore. The whistle was blown loud and hard, but no response was heard. The captain ordered the engines to be stopped, and for some time we drifted about at the mercy of the waves. Suddenly the pilot cried ‘Hark!’ Far away in the distance we heard the welcome tones of the harbour bell, which seemed to say ‘This way, this way!’ Again the engines were started, and, guided by the welcome sound, we entered the harbour in safety.” The words were set to music by Sankey, and it became one of his favourite solos. Here is the chorus:
“‘This way, this way, O heart opprest,
So long by storm and tempest driven;
This way, this way—lo! here is rest.’
Rings out the harbour bell of heaven.”
Many years ago, during Revival meetings in Scotland, a young servant girl became anxious about her spiritual condition. Returning from one of the services she called at the manse, and enquired of her minister how she might be saved.
“Hoot, lassie,” said he, “don’t be alarmed! Just read your Bible and say your prayers, and you will soon be all right.”
“Oh, Minister,” wailed the poor illiterate lassie, as the tears came to her eyes, “I canna read, I canna pray! “Then lifting her eyes upward, she cried, “Lord Jesus, tak’ me as I am! “Her simple prayer was answered, and she became a faithful follower of Christ.
Eliza H. Hamilton, hearing the story of the Scottish lassie’s experience, wrote the hymn “Take me as I am,” which was soon after set to music by Sankey, and proved a great favourite at revival meetings. Here is the first verse and chorus:
“Jesus, my Lord, to Thee I cry;
Unless Thou help me, I must die:
Oh, bring Thy free salvation nigh,
And take me as I am!
And take me as I am! And take me as I am!
My only plea—Christ died for me!
Oh, take me as I am! “
The origin of the words and melody of that dearly loved sacred song “The sweet by-and-by,” a song pregnant with hallowed memories, forms interesting reading. The author is Mr. S. Fillmore Bennett. In the village of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, U.S.A., where he lived in the early sixties, he had among his personal friends, a composer named Joseph P. Webster. He was of a very nervous and sensitive nature, and subject to periods of depression. Knowing the peculiarities of his friend, Bennett could tell at a glance if he was in one of his melancholy moods, and would endeavour to rouse him by giving him the words of a song or hymn to set to music. On one occasion Webster came into his friend’s office, and walking towards the fire, stood for some time with his elbow resting on the mantle-piece, without speaking a word. In telling the story, Mr. Bennett relates:
“‘Webster,’ I said, ‘what is the matter now?’
“‘It is no matter,” he replied; ‘It will be all right by and by!’”
“The idea of the hymn came to me like a flash of sunlight, and I replied:
“‘The sweet by and by! would that not make a good hymn?’
“‘Maybe it would,’ said he indifferently.
“Turning to the desk I penned the three verses and chorus as fast as I could write. In the meantime two friends had come in. I handed the hymn to Mr. Webster. As he read it his eye kindled, and his whole demeanour changed. Stepping to the desk he started writing the notes in a moment, and taking up his violin played over the melody. In a few moments more he had the notes for the four parts of the chorus jotted down. I think it was not over thirty minutes from the time I took up my pen to write the words before the two friends, Webster and myself were singing the hymn in the same form in which it was afterwards published and became popular. While singing, another friend entered, and, after listening awhile, with tears in his eyes, uttered the prediction, ‘That hymn is immortal.’”
It was first published in a book of songs called The Signet Ring, issued soon after the American Civil War. It is now in numerous collections, and has been translated into various foreign languages, and is sung in almost every land under the sun.
Many fanciful stories have been told and written pertaining to the origin of Bishop Bickersteth’s exquisite hymn, “Peace, perfect peace,” and it is refreshing to read an authentic account of its composition which the late hymnist’s son, Dr. S. Bickersteth, furnished Dr. Julian. The hymn, which was the work of a few moments, was written in a house facing the Stray, Harrogate, at which the bishop was staying during the summer of 1875. “On a Sunday morning in August, the Vicar of Harrogate, Canon Gibbon, happened to preach from the text, ‘Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee,’ and alluded to the fact that in the Hebrew the words are ‘Peace, peace,’ twice repeated, and happily translated in the 1611 translation by the phrase ‘Perfect peace.’ This sermon set my father’s mind working on the subject. He always found it easiest to express in verse whatever subject was uppermost in his mind, so that when on the afternoon of that Sunday he visited an aged and dying relative, Archdeacon Hill of Liverpool, and found him somewhat troubled in mind, it was natural to him to express in verse the spiritual comfort which he desired to convey. Taking up a sheet of paper he then and there wrote down the hymn just exactly as it stands, and read it to this dying Christian.
“I was with my father at the time, being home from school for the summer holidays, and I well recollect his coming in to tea, a meal which we always had with him on Sunday afternoons, and saying, ‘Children, I have written you a hymn,’ and reading us ‘Peace, perfect peace,’ in which, from the moment that he wrote it, he never made any alteration.”
Translated into many different tongues, “Peace, perfect peace “has gained a position well to the forefront of famous hymns. Not always is the fact noticed that the first line in each verse is in the form of a question, while the second line in each verse gives the answer.
Dr. Edward Henry Bickersteth was born in London on January 25th, 1825. Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated with honours, he thereafter held various charges, and in 1885 accepted the Bishopric of Exeter in succession to Dr. Temple. Dr. Bickersteth is both hymn writer and poet. He has published several volumes of poems from which about thirty pieces, including that sweet communion hymn “Till He come,” have been set to music, and are to be found in various permanent hymnals both in this country and America. On May 16th, 1906, he passed away at his home in Paddington, at the advanced age of eighty-one.
To those interested in the absorbing subject of sacred song, the name Inellan displayed at the end of a slender looking pier as you sail down the Clyde, at once associates itself with a famous hymn; for it was here that Dr. George Matheson wrote “O love, that wilt not let me go,” a hymn beloved not only in Scotland, but the world over. Though deprived of his eyesight in his youth, Matheson had a brilliant career as a student at Edinburgh, and became a powerful preacher. Dr. Matheson gives an interesting account of the circumstances under which “O love, that wilt not let me go” was written. “My hymn was composed in the Manse of Innellan on the evening of June 6th, 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 had happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe 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 completed in five minutes, and equally sure it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.” It is said that the severe mental suffering spoken of by Dr. Matheson, had reference to a painful love affair of his which occurred about that time. He died at North Berwick in 1906.
No more appropriate music could have been written for this beautiful hymn than St. Margaret, the sublime composition of Dr. A. L. Peace.
I have a vivid recollection when, as a boy, I was taken by my father to an organ recital given in Langholm Parish Church, Dumfriesshire, in 1895, about thirteen years after the hymn was written, when the eminent musician thrilled the audience by a performance of his charming composition.
There is an affecting story relating to the writing of “It is well with my soul.” Mr. H. G. Spafford, the author of the hymn, was a lawyer in Chicago, and well known as a man engaged in Christian activities. By the foundering of a steamer on which his wife and four children were going to Europe, the latter lost their lives, causing him great sorrow. It was this pathetic circumstance that inspired the grief-stricken father, some time later, to pen this hymn.
“When Mr. Moody and I were holding meetings in Edinburgh, in 1874,” said Mr. Sankey, when telling the story, “we heard of the sad news of the loss of the French steamer Ville de Havre, on her return from America to France. On board was Mrs. Spafford with her four children. In mid ocean a collision took place with a sailing vessel, causing the steamer to sink in half an hour. Nearly all on board were lost. Mrs. Spafford got her children out of their berths and up on deck. Being told the steamer would soon sink, she knelt down with her children in prayer, and asked God that they might be saved if possible; or made ready to die if it was His will. In a few minutes the vessel sank, and the children were lost. One of the sailors of the vessel—whom I afterwards met in Scotland —while rowing over the spot where the steamer had disappeared, discovered Mrs. Spafford floating in the water. He rescued her, and in ten days she was landed at Cardiff. From there she cabled to her husband the message, ‘Saved alone.’ Mr. Spafford had the message framed and hung in his office. He started immediately for England to bring his wife to Chicago. Mr. Moody left his meetings in Edinburgh and went to Liverpool to try to comfort the bereaved parents, and was greatly pleased they were able to say, ‘It is well; the will of God be done.’”
It was in commemoration of the death of his children, that Mr. Spafford wrote the hymn which has brought comfort to many a troubled heart. This is how it opens:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”