Isaac Watts, the author of the immortal hymn, “O God, our help in ages past,” is rightly regarded as the father of English hymnody, for, prior to his time, hymns were rarely sung in public worship. Up to that period practically the only vehicle of praise in the English and Scottish churches took the form of very crude versions of the Psalms, while in some nonconformist congregations there was no singing at all. A story is told of young Watts, on coming home from chapel one Sunday, complaining to his father, who was one of the deacons, that the psalmody in use at the Congregational Chapel at Southampton did not possess the dignity and beauty becoming a Christian service.
“Then give us something better, young man! “was his father’s ironical reply.
Isaac determined to do so, and the following Sunday arrived at the chapel with his first hymn: a hymn eminently appropriate, and which to-day, after the passing of two centuries and more, has lost none of its power and beauty:
“Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst His Father’s throne;
Prepare new honours for His Name,
And songs before unknown.”
The youthful hymn writer’s initial attempt was so favourably received that he was requested to provide another for the next Sunday. A chord had been struck which gave birth to new and delightful harmonies in English hymnody. Thus, bringing a fresh hymn to the chapel each Sunday, until almost a volume was produced, began the reputation as a hymnist of the famous Dr. Watts. He was the eldest of nine children, and was born on July 17th, 1674, at Southampton, where his father kept a flourishing boarding-school. Isaac Watts, senior, lived through the stormy days of early nonconformity, and because of his religious convictions was twice thrown into prison. While there, the infant Isaac was often brought to the outside of the prison by his mother, who would sit for hours on the stone by the gate. As he grew into boyhood Isaac did not enjoy robust health, and being of a studious nature he was apt at times to overtax his strength. On his twenty-fourth birthday Watts preached his first sermon, and two years later was appointed assistant minister of the famous Mark Lane Independent Church, London, subsequently becoming sole pastor. Ill-health, however, compelled him to give up all regular pastoral duties, and on the invitation of Sir Thomas and Lady Abney he went for a week’s visit to their residence in Hertfordshire—a visit which resulted in a stay of thirty years. It was during this happy period of Isaac Watts’ life that most of his hymns were written. He died on November 25th, 1748, aged seventy-five, and was buried in the Puritan resting-place at Bunhill Fields. Later, a monument was erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, near to that of John and Charles Wesley.
Altogether, Watts wrote over six hundred hymns, in the composition of which, there was ever present an ardent desire to express in simple yet forceful language, the aspirations of the heart towards God. “I make no pretence to be a poet,” he says, “but to the Lamb that was slain, and now lives, I have addressed many a song, to be sung by the penitent and believing heart.”
Sweetest amongst his compositions, and pronounced by critics as the finest in the English language, is the universally loved hymn, “When I survey the wondrous cross.” Here Watts strikes his highest note as he dwells in tender and solemn reverence on the all-absorbing theme of God’s wonderful redemption. Where, in the whole range of hymnody, could be found a verse to compare with the following lines?
“See! from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
A missionary hymn which vies in popularity with that of Bishop Heber, is Watts’—
“Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Doth his successive journeys run.”
It is said that the majestic tune to which “O God, our help in ages past “is sung the world over, known as “St. Anne,” was composed so far back as 1687; more than a generation before the hymn was written. Thus, it is quite probable that the hymn was sung to the same old tune in the days when Isaac Watts himself joined in the singing.
Other compositions of his, which have stood the test of more than two hundred years, are, “I’m not ashamed to own my Lord,” “Not all the blood of beasts,” “Come let us join our cheerful songs,” and “There is a land of pure delight.” The latter hymn, it is said, was suggested to Watts as he sat at his parlour window at Southampton, and looked out upon the waters of the Itchen, with the Isle of Wight in the distance, and the beautiful landscape stretching far away on the other side of the river. Thoughts of Canaan, and the Jordan, and the glories of the eternal home beyond, illumed the spiritual vision of the great hymnist, as from his heart poured forth the words:
“There everlasting spring abides,
And never-with’ring flowers;
Death, like a narrow sea, divides
This heavenly land from ours.”
It is related that, when slighted by the maiden of his choice, who, in repulsing his addresses, told the young minister that although she admired the jewel she could not endure the casket, Watts had some consolation in giving expression to his injured feelings in a hymn commencing:
“How vain are all things here below,
How false and yet how fair!
Each pleasure hath its poison too,
And every sweet a snare.”
Watts was never married, and yet he is a child’s hymnist. Though present day hymnals contain few of his old-time compositions, still, around these simple stanzas, which, two or three generations ago never failed to sway the feelings of the child, there clings a halo of happy memories, drawing us nearer, and still nearer, to the One of Whom these little hymns taught us to sing.
When Dr. Watts was thirty years old, there was born in London on June 26th, 1702, Philip Doddridge, the author of the stirring Advent hymn:
“Hark, the glad sound! the Saviour conies,
The Saviour promised long;
Let every heart exult with joy,
And every voice be song.”
In later years, despite the disparity in age, the two became staunch friends, and throughout life they continued to live in close brotherly fellowship with each other. Both were Independent ministers and writers of sacred song. Doddridge, however, through enfeebled health, survived his more illustrious compeer by three years only. Philip was the twentieth child of his parents, and after passing through the vicissitudes of a childhood which bereft him of both father and mother, he survived, and grew into a youth of high promise.
Before Doddridge was quite out of his teens he took to preaching, and the Duchess of Bedford, recognising his sterling qualities as a preacher of the Word, offered to send him to the university, and provide a living in the Church of England at her own charges. Doddridge, however, like his friend Watts, declined the offer, and instead, qualified himself for service as a dissenting minister. After seven years’ pastorate at the quiet little village of Kibworth, where he had received part of his education, Doddridge settled at Northampton as minister of an Independent Church. In addition to his pastoral work, he opened an academy for the purpose of training young men for the ministry.
He was a man of outstanding literary talent; one of his best known prose works being The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul. In the production of this book, Doddridge was greatly encouraged and assisted by Watts, whose declining strength did not permit the good doctor to carry into effect his own design. It is interesting to note that it was through the reading of this book that brought about a great spiritual change in the life of William Wilberforce, the benefactor of slaves, and prompted him to write his Practical View of Christianity, which, it is said, moulded the life of that illustrious Scotsman, Dr. Chalmers.
It is chiefly as a hymn writer that the name of Philip Doddridge will be remembered, for, as such he occupies a premier place. His hymns number about four hundred, and, singular though it may seem, they did not pass beyond the stage of manuscript during the author’s lifetime. They were first issued in sheet form in the author’s own handwriting, and were passed about and read. In this way many of Dr. Doddridge’s manuscripts have come to be preserved, not a few of which still show the writing to be fresh and clear, after the passing of more than a hundred and fifty years.
Among the hymns which have attained the greatest popularity, are, “Grace, ’tis a charming sound,” “O God of Bethel, by whose hand,” “My God, and is Thy table spread? “and that sweetest of all hymns of the child of God, who, in the ecstasy of a joy-filled heart finds fullest expression in the glowing words:
“O happy day, that fixed my choice
On Thee, my Saviour and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell his raptures all abroad.”
The hymn, “O God of Bethel, by whose hand,” was written to follow a sermon on “Jacob’s Vow,” (Gen. 28:20-22) preached January 16th, 1737, and is numbered among the Scottish Psalms and Paraphrases. There is a pathetic interest attached to these verses, from their association with the story of the heroic missionary, Dr. Livingstone. From early boyhood his heart had been tuned to the Psalms and Paraphrases, beloved by Scots people the world over, and it is said that this one, which had fixed itself on his memory, became the favourite hymn of his wanderings in darkest Africa. And when on April 18th, 1874, his remains were borne to their last resting-place in Westminster Abbey, it was to the plaintive strains of this hymn:
“O God of Bethel, by whose hand
Thy people still are fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage
Hast all our fathers led.”
Perhaps the most unpopular hymn that Dr. Doddridge ever wrote was one for early rising. “The very object for which the good doctor wrote,” says a contemporary writer, “proved the death blow to the composition, for if there is one thing more than another to which members of the human race strongly object, it is leaving their beds in the small hours. Dr. Doddridge was not aware of this, and, in order that the hymn should not be entirely wasted, sang it himself. At five o’clock,” so the story goes, “he prepared to leave his bed, repeating five stanzas before doing so; at the sixth he rose and dressed.” The writer is careful not to tell us how long the worthy doctor lingered over the first five verses!
Consumption, brought on by overwork, compelled Dr. Doddridge to leave England for a milder climate, and he sailed for Lisbon, where he died two weeks after his arrival, on October 26th, 1751, in his fiftieth year.
On the wall behind the pulpit of the church of St. Mary Woolnoth, London, may be seen a simple tablet bearing this inscription:
once an infidel and libertine,
a servant of slaves in Africa;
by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour
preserved, restored, pardoned,
and appointed to preach the faith
he had long laboured to destroy.
Near sixteen years at Olney in Bucks,
and twenty-seven years in this church.
One of the most remarkable men, whose name posterity has lovingly inscribed on the honoured roll of early English hymn writers is John Newton, author of the sublime hymn, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” and whose hand penned his own epitaph. He was born in London in the year 1725, the only child of his parents. His mother, a pious dissenter, was a godly praying woman, and stored his childish mind with Scripture, but died when the boy was only seven years old. At the age of eleven, his father, a captain in the Merchant Service, took his son to sea with him. John’s life at sea teems with thrilling escapades and reckless profligacy. Seeking the company of evil companions he grew into an abandoned and godless sailor, and the glimmering rays of the religious thoughts of boyhood changed into fixed infidelity. Seized by the press-gang, he was forced into the Royal Navy, from which he soon afterwards deserted. On being recaptured he was flogged, and later dismissed for insubordination. Newton again took to sea, sailing under the flag of a West African slaver, from which he was expelled on account of his wicked conduct, and for fifteen months lived half starved in degradation under a cruel slave dealer. Returning to England, the ship in which he sailed encountered a terrific storm. It was while taking his turn with the shipmates at the pumps, when hope was all but abandoned, that John Newton reached the turning point of his career. In the face of apparent death he cried aloud to God for mercy. His past life came before him like an ominous cloud and the profligate sailor was filled with deep remorse. The ship was saved, but ere it reached harbour the light of the glorious Gospel shone in upon the benighted soul of John Newton. He was then just twenty-three. In 1755, Newton abandoned his seafaring life, and coming under the influence of such men as Wesley and Whitefield he had his thoughts directed to the ministry. His spare time was now taken up reading theological books, the study of God’s Word, and the preaching of the Gospel. At the age of thirty-nine he was licensed to the curacy of Olney, in Buckinghamshire, and it was here he opened up a life-long friendship with William Cowper, the poet. Together they composed the well-known Olney Hymns, published in 1779, of which collection sixty-eight were composed by Cowper, and two hundred and eighty by Newton. Some of John Newton’s best known hymns are: “Begone unbelief, my Saviour is near,” “Glorious things of Thee are spoken,” “In evil long I took delight,” “Rejoice, believer in the Lord,” and “May the grace of Christ our Saviour.”
The composition, however, by which his name will always be remembered is the hymn beginning:
“How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.”
Newton lived to the ripe age of eighty-two and died in the city of his birth. He was buried in St. Mary, Woolnoth, but owing to the construction of an underground railway station in the vicinity, the church was closed from 1891 to 1893 in order that the vaults might be cleared. The bodies were re-interred at Ilford, but the remains of John Newton and his wife were taken to Olney and buried in the south-east corner of the churchyard, where a monument was erected at a later date. A grim relic of the removal is to be seen in the discoloured brass plate, formerly on Newton’s coffin, which is hung up under a glass on the west wall of Olney church.
Following in the wake of Watts, Doddridge and Newton, came the poet Montgomery, who gave to the world, “For ever with the Lord,” and whose name as a hymn writer ranks in the very forefront. The son of a Moravian minister of Irish descent, James Montgomery was born on November 4th, 1771, at Irvine in Ayrshire, the land made famous as the native place of Robert Burns. His father was anxious that James, his eldest son, should follow in his footsteps, and sent the boy to a Moravian school in Yorkshire to pursue his studies. Soon afterwards, the parents sailed as missionaries to the West Indies, where they died, leaving their son to fight life’s battles single handed. Left to his own resources, it was not long before young Montgomery, tiring of the restraint of school life, and feeling his utter unfitness for ministerial duties, abandoned all thought of fulfilling the purpose of his father. Escaping from school he set out in search of work, and obtained employment in a retail shop at Mirfield, near Wakefield. This change, however, did not exactly suit his youthful taste, and he sought other employment, which he found in the shop of a draper at Wath-upon-Dearne. All this time James was busy writing verses, and before he had reached his eighteenth birthday he had collected quite a considerable number of poems. Fired with ambition, he made a journey to London with the hope of finding a publisher for his youthful poems, but this ended in failure, and he returned to Sheffield, where he secured employment in the office of the Sheffield Register newspaper. Montgomery eventually became proprietor, changed its name to Iris, and successfully conducted it for thirty years. As a journalist, his principles in days when party feeling ran high, were evidently too liberal for the Government’s ideas, and Montgomery was twice imprisoned, once for publishing a poem—not his own—on “the Fall of the Bastille.” It was when Montgomery lay in prison that many of his best hymns were written. To its credit be it said that the Government, by way, perhaps, of atonement, in after years conferred on the poet a well-deserved pension of £200 a year. Recognized as a poet of high water mark, Montgomery’s poems brought him considerable popularity, and called forth the admiration of such critics as the celebrated Lord Byron.
Montgomery was once asked, “Which of your poems will live?” to which he replied, “None, sir, except a few of my hymns.” He spoke truly. It is by his hymns that Montgomery is remembered, rather than by his more ambitious poetry. Thus, while his Wanderer of Switzerland and The World before the Flood, which brought him fame as a poet, are unknown to-day, such hymns as “For ever with the Lord,” “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,” “Hail to the Lord’s anointed,” and that sweetest of all communion hymns:
“According to Thy gracious word,
In meek humility,
This will I do, my dying Lord,
I will remember Thee.”
will never be forgotten. He wrote about four hundred hymns, a considerable number of which are in present use. Dr. Julian, the eminent hymnologist, has this to say of Montgomery: “The secrets of his power as a writer of hymns were manifold. His poetic genius was of a high order, higher than most who stand with him in the front ranks of Christian poets. His ear for rhythm was exceedingly accurate and refined. His knowledge of Holy Scripture was most extensive. His religious views were broad and charitable. His devotional spirit was of the holiest type. With the faith of a strong man he united the beauty and simplicity of a child. Richly poetic without exuberance, dogmatic without uncharitableness, tender without sentimentality, elaborate without diffusiveness, richly musical without apparent effort, he has bequeathed to the Church of Christ wealth which could only have come from a true genius and a sanctified heart.”
James Montgomery passed away in his sleep at The Mount, Sheffield, on April 30th, 1854, and was honoured with a public funeral. Later, a statue to his memory was erected over his grave.
The name of John Keble will always be remembered by his monumental work the Christian Year, a collection of poems and sacred songs for the year, published in 1827, which reached its ninety-sixth edition during the lifetime of the author. It is from this poetical storehouse that English hymnody has been enriched by the inclusion in its ever increasing volumes, of that gem of evening hymns:
“Sun of my soul, Thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if Thou be near;
O may no earthborn cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes.”
John Keble was the son of a clergyman, and was born at Fairford, in Gloucestershire, in 1792. He received his early tuition at home under the scholarly guidance of his father, and at the age of fifteen he went to Oxford where the future hymn writer had a brilliant career. At the age of eighteen he took double first honours, which was then counted a rare distinction, and had the honour of being appointed Professor of Poetry. Naturally shy and unambitious, Keble never felt quite at home at Oxford, although it was there he met many of his life-long friends, including Dr. Arnold, who later became the distinguished Rugby master, Lord Coleridge and John Henry Newman.
In 1835, Keble became Vicar of Hursley, a scattered parish six miles from Winchester, with a population of fifteen thousand people. Here for thirty years, amid the peaceful surrounding of a country village, he made his home till his death in 1866, his devoted wife following him six weeks later.
The greater part of Keble’s life was taken up, in conjunction with such men as Newman and Faber, in religious controversies about church matters known as “Tractarian movement,” and when, eventually, his friend Newman seceded to Rome, though he feared the step was coming, Keble received the news with profound grief. It is, however, as a hymn writer and Christian poet that we have to deal with Keble in these pages. During his incumbency, the villagers had come to know and love their shy and unassuming vicar, for, though much of his time was occupied in writing, he was a constant visitor amongst his flock, ministering to their various needs. Hursley church was restored by him, the necessary funds being drawn from the money received through the sale of the Christian Year.
The recognized tune to “Sun of my Soul,” Keble’s most famous hymn, is the one by Sir Herbert Oakeley, known as Abends. It is a delightfully sweet and appropriate melody, and though it had many predecessors, Abends very soon sprang into favour.
Among other hymns by John Keble to be found in present day hymnals are: “The voice that breathed o’er Eden,” a hymn much used at marriage celebrations, “There is a Book, who runs may read,” “When God of old came down from heaven,” “Lord, in Thy name Thy servants plead,” and that glorious morning hymn:
“New every morning is Thy love,
Our wakening and uprising prove;
Through sleep and darkness safely brought,
Restored to life, and power, and thought.”
Contemporaneous with Keble, and rightly recognized as the Prince of Translators, John Mason Neale has done more in the realm of hymnology than any other exponent in this particular field of literature. A son of the Church—his father was the Rev. Cornelius Neale, a man of considerable learning—he was born in London on January 24th, 1818. His father died when the boy was five years old, thus his early training was almost entirely under the tender care of his mother, of whom in after years he wrote, “a mother to whom I owe more than I can express.” From his youth Neale had a passion for books, and it is said that he read when he sat at meals, read while he walked in the busy streets or the quiet country lanes, read when out driving, read everything that came his way, and what he read was ineffaceably registered on his mind, for he never seemed to forget what he read.
Neale had a distinguished career at Cambridge, where he was considered the best man of his year. Archbishop Trench called him “the most profoundly learned hymnologist of our church”; another “one of the most erudite scholars, one of the best linguists (he knew twenty languages), one of the most profound theologians, and foremost liturgists of his time.” In 1842 he was appointed incumbent of Crawley, in Sussex, but owing to ill-health he was compelled to retire from ministerial duties and leave England for Madeira, where he spent about a year. On returning in 1846, Dr. Neale was presented to the wardenship of Sackville College, East Grinstead, where the wardens salary averaged the munificent sum of £27 a year! This post he held till his death, August 6th, 1866. Dr. Neale was a voluminous writer, both in prose and verse, and as he struggled with poverty, his stories for children were written to furnish him with the means of livelihood.
Among hymns from Greek and Latin sources which we owe to Neale, the following are familiar: “O happy band of pilgrims,” “The day is past and over,” “Jerusalem the golden,” “Brief life is here our portion,” and “All glory, laud and honour.”
An incident, illustrating in an amusing way his extraordinary mastery of Latin, is worthy of relating here. It was during a visit to his friend John Keble, at Hursley, and is told by the Rev. Gerald Moultrie. “Mr. Keble, having to go to another room to find some papers was detained a short time. On his return, Dr. Neale said, ‘Why, Keble, I thought you told me that the Christian Year was entirely original.’ ‘Yes,’ he answered, ‘it certainly is.’ ‘Then how comes this?’ and Dr. Neale placed before him the Latin of one of Keble’s hymns. Keble professed himself utterly confounded. He protested that he had never seen this ‘original,’ no, not in all his life. After a few minutes Neale relieved him by owning that he had just turned it into Latin in his absence.”
Though the name of John Mason Neale is best known as a translator, he was also an original composer, and many of his hymns find a place not only in our own hymnals, but also in those of other nations. A hymn of surpassing beauty which should really be classed with his original compositions rather than a translation, is:
“Art thou weary, art thou languid,
Art thou sore distressed?
‘Come to Me,’ saith One, ‘and coming,
Be at rest.’”
In his day, John Ellerton, who wrote “The day Thou gavest, Lord, is ended,” and many other equally familiar hymns, was termed by Matthew Arnold as “The greatest of living hymnologists.” He certainly occupies a pre-eminent place in the foremost rank of hymn writers. Throughout life hymns were his joy and delight. He compiled many hymnals and rendered valuable service to hymnology generally. But he is best known for his own compositions, many of which will live while the world continues to lift her voice in sacred song.
John Ellerton was born in London, on December 16th, 1826. After graduating at Cambridge and holding several appointments, he became, in 1886, Rector of White Roding. He was appointed Hon. Canon of St. Albans in 1892, and died on June 15th of the following year. “The subject of Mr. Ellerton’s hymns,” says Julian, “and the circumstances under which they were written, had much to do with the concentration of thought and terseness of expression by which they are characterised. The words which he uses are usually short and simple; the thought is clear and well stated; the rhythm is good and stately. Ordinary facts in sacred history and in daily life are lifted above commonplace rhymes with which they are usually associated… His sympathy with nature, especially in her sadder moods, is great; he loves the fading light and the peace of eve, and lingers in the shadows. Unlike many writers who set forth their illustrations in detail, and then tie to them the moral which they are to teach, he weaves his moral into the metaphor, and pleases the imagination and refreshes the spirit together.”
Canon Ellerton’s best known hymn is:
“Saviour, again to Thy dear name we raise
With one accord our parting hymn of praise;
We stand to bless Thee ere our worship cease,
Then, lowly kneeling, wait Thy word of peace.”
which is sung perhaps as frequently as the evening hymns of Lyte and Keble. It was written in 1886. Not unlike many other writers, Ellerton frequently composed his hymns to some particular melody which happened to take his fancy. In this way a number of his best known hymns were written. When he was asked to write this hymn for a special occasion, he used a tune entitled “St. Agnes,” and taking the reverse side of an old sermon note he drafted out his now famous hymn. The original manuscript, which is still preserved, is interesting from the point of view of its many corrections by the author. For some years the hymn was sung to the same old melody, but a more beautiful and appropriate tune, to which it has since been sung, was later composed by Dr. Dykes.
Canon Ellerton did not take out a copyright of any of his hymns, believing that “if counted worthy to contribute to Christ’s praise in the congregation, one ought to feel very thankful and very humble.”
He wrote a large number of hymns, of which the following are of real merit: “Throned upon the awful tree,” “Our day of praise is done,” “This is the day of life,” “Now the labourer’s task is o’er.” The last named strikes a singularly sympathetic note, as do most of his hymns, and has become the funeral hymn of our nation:
“‘Earth to earth, and dust to dust,’
Calmly now the words we say;
Left behind we wait in trust
For the resurrection day.
Father, in Thy gracious keeping
Leave we now Thy servant sleeping.”
No book on the fascinating subject of hymnology would be complete without fitting allusion to Dr. Julian, the greatest authority on hymns and hymn writers this country has ever known. He is well known throughout the English-speaking world, and by literary scholars in all Christian countries, as a writer of books on hymnology, the principal one of which is the monumental work “A Dictionary of Hymnolgy, setting forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns for all Ages and Nations.” This was published in 1892, and a second edition, “Revised, with new Supplement,” in 1907. He was over ten years in preparing the first edition, although he had nearly three dozen assistants to help him. The work contains over 1,600 pages, and gives an account of the origin and history of about 30,000 hymns, beginning with one by Clement of Alexandria, the earliest known hymn (excepting heathen ones) outside the bounds of Scripture Dr. Julian estimated at that time (1892) that the number of extant Christian hymns of all ages and nations, might be approximately reckoned at 400,000, of which about 100,000 are in the German language, and nearly as many in the English; after which, for number, come the Latin and Greek.
Dr. Julian was born at St. Agnes, Cornwall, on January 27th, 1839. He was ordained in 1867, and, after holding three curacies, was appointed vicar of Wincobank, Sheffield, in 1876, which living he retained till 1905, when he accepted the vicariate of Topcliffe, Thirsk. He was appointed Canon of York in 1901. He published his first book on hymnology in 1874, and his last, Sacred Carols, Ancient and Modern, with Musical Illustrations, in 1909. Dr. Julian died on January 22nd, 1913.
The most eminent of all Scottish hymn writers, and well to the forefront of the world’s hymnists of last century, the name of Dr. Horatius Bonar may well rank with Watts, Doddridge and Wesley. His hymns, simple enough that a child can understand, yet profoundly spiritual withal, are loved and sung, not only in the land that gave him birth, but in countries beyond the seas, wherever these heavenly songs have been carried.
Horatius Bonar was the son of a lawyer, and was born in Edinburgh, on December 19th, 1808. He was one of several brothers who all became eminent ministers in the Church of Scotland. Educated at the famous High School and University of his native city, in his student days he came under the influence of such men as Dr. Chalmers, Edward Irving and Robert Murray McCheyne. He early decided to devote his life to the Lord’s service in the ministry of the Gospel, and on completing his theological course he undertook mission work at St. John’s Church, Leith. It was here that he began to write hymns. Keenly interested in young folks, the Sunday School, under his care, very quickly grew and proposed. When he first began mission work he found the boys and girls listless and indifferent in the matter of public worship. Accustomed to the use of psalms, not exactly suited, either in word or tune to meet the needs of the young folks, Mr. Bonar realized that what ought to have been the brightest part of the service was to them the dullest. And yet the children loved music and were ready enough to sing songs on week-days. So he tried an experiment; choosing a few familiar tunes such as “The Flowers of the Forest,” he set to work writing words to them. These he had printed in leaflet form and distributed amongst the young folks in the Sunday School. To Mr. Bonar’s delight the experiment succeeded, and the children immediately took to singing the new hymns which had been specially written for them. In this way were written Horatius Bonar’s first two hymns, “I lay my sins on Jesus,” and “The morning, the bright and the beautiful morning.”
After four and a half years’ work at Leith, he became minister of the North Parish Church, Kelso, in November, 1837, where he laboured with a devotion and enthusiasm that never waned during his long and faithful ministry. His first sermon was long remembered by those who heard it delivered from the pulpit. It was a clarion call to prayer. “Pray brethren!” was his cry, “so shall the showers of heaven descend upon our church, our parish, our schools, our families. It is to prayer I urge you, to prayer for yourselves, to prayer for me!” But Horatius Bonar was preeminently a man of prayer, and in after years the voice of earnest pleading from behind the fast closed door of his study, pleading that continued often for hours at a time, formed one of the most sacred memories in his own home circle. Strong physically, Dr. Bonar was never idle. At Kelso, it is said that in one day he frequently preached three times in the pulpit and once in the open air. He was a valiant for the Truth, and even as an old man, when at Edinburgh, his stentorian voice could be heard heralding forth the Gospel in the open air, sometimes in the meadows and sometimes in Parliament Square. One friend said of him that he was always preaching, another that he was always visiting, another that he was always writing, and yet another that he was always praying.
At the Disruption of 1843 Dr. Bonar remained at Kelso as Minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and it was here that most of his best known hymns were written, including the one commencing:
“I heard the voice of Jesus say,
‘Come unto Me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down
Thy head upon My breast!’”
which is, perhaps, the most loved of all his compositions. Through the courtesy of Miss Eliza Maitland Bonar, a daughter of the late hymnist, I am able to give a reproduction of the original manuscript taken from Dr. Bonar’s notebook, which is among some of the
rare treasured possessions he has left behind. It is written in pencil and is now very much worn and faded. As a hymnal manuscript it is indeed unique, and reveals the peculiar methods adopted by the author when composing his hymns. We are told “he would take his notebook, and while thinking out the lines of his hymn he would be busy with his pencil, making little sketches all over the margin of the page.” In the same notebook is the original draft of “I was a wandering sheep,” the mention of which recalls a rather amusing story. Years ago, in a Devonshire parish, an old farmer died. His son went to the vicar to arrange about the funeral, and said that the family would much like to have a hymn, so the vicar asked him if they had any choice. “Yes, sir,” said the young man. “You see, father has always been a farmer, and he lived once in Australia, and has travelled a great deal, so we should like to have ‘I was a wandering sheep.’” The family must have given some thought to the matter, because till then the hymn had never been sung in that remote church.
In 1866, Dr. Bonar removed to Edinburgh, the place of his birth, where he undertook the charge of a new church. Here he laboured till he was past eighty, and though the press of city work somewhat retarded the outpouring of hymns, yet his pen was never still. For a time he edited two magazines and was, in addition, continually publishing prose works. He was also the author of hundreds of tracts, one of which, “Believe and Live,” published in 1839, reached a circulation of a million copies.
The visit to Scotland of Moody and Sankey in 1873-74 seemed to revive the flow of hymns, and about this time fresh hymns began to appear in his notebooks, many of these specially written for Mr. Sankey. Regarding one hymn written about this time, there is an interesting story. Mr. Sankey had been singing Tennyson’s sad and beautiful poem, “Late, late, so late, and dark the night and chill,” for which he had composed a tune. On asking permission of the owner of the copyright to use it in his collection of hymns, he was refused. So, being left with a tune without words, Sankey requested Dr. Bonar to write a hymn which would convey the same Scriptural theme. This was done, and the wellknown hymn “Yet there is room,” was the result.
An outstanding feature of the hymns of this notable Scottish Presbyterian is that they belong to no particular denomination, but are in use in almost every form of Christian worship, wherever the songs of Zion are sung. Dr. Bonar wrote about six hundred hymns—not including sixty translations of different Psalms— and these are to be found in hymnals the world over. Possibly the best known are, “I heard the voice of Jesus say,” “Thy way, not mine, O Lord,” “I lay my sins on Jesus,” “I was a wandering sheep,” “A few more years shall roll,” “Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face.” His own favourite was:
“When the weary, seeking rest,
To Thy goodness flee.”
At a memorial service preached at Grange, Edinburgh, the Rev. R. H. Lundie, an intimate friend of the great hymnist, said, “His hymns were written in varied circumstances, sometimes tuned by the tinkling brook that bubbled near him, sometimes tuned to the ordered tramp of the ocean, whose crested waves broke on the beach by which he wandered; sometimes set to the rude music of the railway train that hurried him to the scene of his duty; sometimes measured by the silent rhythm of the midnight stars that shone above him.
Appropriate in closing, are the words of his “Pilgrim Song “:
“A few more suns shall set
O’er these dark hills of time,
And we shall be where suns are not,
A far serener clime.”
After a lingering illness, borne with Christian fortitude, his last sun set on the 31st of July, 1889, and Dr. Horatius Bonar passed to that serener clime of which he sang—into the presence of the King.