I am sure that many of us are familiar with the hymn “Abide With Me”. It is sung by the crowds at important football matches. It is often chosen for the funeral of a loved ones, and can be a hymn of personal devotion.
“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comfort flees,
Help of the helpless, Lord abide with me”
Beautiful words, that strike a chord with many of us. However, I wonder just how many of us know the story behind this great hymn?
The word “great” – when thinking about a hymn-does not mean “literary greatness”, but rather that the influence that the hymn had, and still has, on successive audiences and individuals. The author, Reverend Henry Lyte, was vicar of Lower Brixham, Devon. In 1847, at the age of just 54, his health began to fail quite rapidly, and it became obvious that he was not long for this world. He decided that he would like to spend (what would become) the last year of his life in Italy.
It was as the date for his departure from home drew near that he gave to the world this magnificent hymn (and Henry’s epitaph) that has since found a place in almost every published Hymnal. His daughter has given us an account of the day when Henry Lyte composed the hymn. “The summer”, she said, “was coming to an end, and when September (when he planned to take ship) arrived, each day seemed to have a special value, as being nearer his departure.”
His family were surprised, and also very anxious, when he announced that he wanted to preach to his congregation one last time. Worries about his weakness, and the dangers to his health that might result from his efforts, were well founded and his family urged him not to put himself at such great risk, but it was all in vain. Henry, bound and determined to fulfil his own wishes-did preach, and his parishioners listened with breathless attention.
Though he was very exhausted, his family and friends could see no reason to believe that he was harmed in any by his efforts. During the evening of that same day, he placed into the hands of a near and dear friend the words of that hymn, which we now know and love so well, together with music of his own composing as accompaniment.
Henry Lyte died that November in Nice, in the south of France: his last words were “Peace and joy”.
“Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes:
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
When Heaven’s morning breaks and Earth’s vain shadows flee,
Help of the helpless, Lord Abide with me”.
(This article was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in May 2017)