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The story behind the hymn: Abide with me (14/09/20)

By Sue Vander Byl

When we turn open the pages of our hymn book to find the announced hymn how often do we notice the name of the writer, or if we do just give it a passing glance? Do we ever wonder who they were and why they wrote the hymn?

These were real people, who for a variety of reasons and differing circumstances felt called upon to express their faith and their feelings for God, through the medium of hymn, poem or prayer. In looking more deeply into the writer we can discover what tremendous blessing and encouragement can be ours through understanding why a particular hymn came to be written. Music and poetry have always been part of man’s means of expressing his worship and relationship with God.

In the Christian church there are hymns of praise and thanks giving which uplift the heart, hymns of testimony and witness proclaiming God’s truth, hymns that anticipate heaven and encourage believers to press on what ever the circumstances of life to glory, and some hymns  which are associated with special occasions, such as Christmas, Easter, weddings and funerals.

We may think that it is only in todays church that young people complain about outmoded  and boring hymns! When a teenager Isaac Watts did just that to his father a leading deacon of the church, “Alright then young man, you give us something better”. Accepting his father’s challenge he eventually wrote a total of more than 600 hymns, earning himself the title “father of church hymnody”. Among those remembered today are “Oh God our help in ages past”, “Joy to the world” and “When I survey the wondrous cross”. I wonder what the elders of the church thought when these “modern” hymns were first introduced into their services! A glance through a hymn book will show you others.

One of the most well-known hymns, which is associated with a special occasion and which is often sung at funerals, expresses great anguish felt by the writer whilst also expressing His great faith and hope of heaven. This is “Abide with me”.

The writer Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847) was pastor of a small church whose congregation were mostly seafaring folk, and as such were in those days to the ravages of the weather and tragedy of sudden death. Lyte himself was a sickly man who suffered much ill health. Eventually he was persuaded to exchange the climate of Lower Brixham, Devon, for warmer and sunnier climes. when told he had “consumption” or TB.

He had become very attached to his congregation and his ministry among them. The Sunday before he was due to leave he took his last service , preaching his last sermon. administering them communion, and committing them to the Lord in prayer. That same evening at home overcome with grief and anguish over the coming parting and in search of solace and comfort, he wrote the five verses of this hymn. Then before retiring to bed he handed them to his daughter, and the next day left for Nice. It was barely two months later that he died at the age of 54.

Little would he know of the legacy he left behind; a ministry completed and a hymn which has strengthened and consoled countless numbers of people over many years, and will no doubt continue to do so. How wonderful to know that what ever our feelings, our concerns and worries, we can take them, as well as our praise and thanksgiving, and pour them out and share them before our loving and compassionate God. For He loves us so much that He gave His most precious gift , His Son, that in professing Jesus as Lord and Saviour we might share eternity with Him. 

Below are links to various versions of Abide with Me:

Listen to Abide With Me (Audrey Assad) here:

Listen to Abide With Me (Emeli Sande) here:

Listen to Abide with Me (Katherine Jenkins) here:

Listen to Abide With Me (King’s College Choir Cambridge) here:

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