[Today’s post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, Abide With Me, by acclaimed photographer Paul Seawright and Professor of English John Parker. The book and its CD with 20 classic hymns, will be released in April 2009 by New Leaf Press.]

On the coast of Devon, England, lies Lower Brixham, an ancient fishing village built on the inlet known as “Torbay.” Brilliant sunshine glitters like diamonds across azure blue calm water and pastel houses perch on terraces overlooking the harbor.

Henry Francis Lyte was born in Scotland in 1793 to a military officer and his wife and the family moved to Ireland during the Napoleonic Wars. By the time he was 9, Henry was orphaned but was befriended by several benefactors. Eventually he was admitted to Trinity College to study for the ministry where he demonstrated excellent scholarship, a lovable personality and notable skill as a poet. 

In 1823, having married Anne Maxwell, Henry became rector of All-Saints Church in Lower Brixham where he was beloved by fishermen’s families whom he and Anne served. His church was full on Sundays and he ensured a Bible was on every boat leaving the harbor. Henry also composed many hymns, including “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” and “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” 

Henry’s frail health deteriorated with tuberculosis, however, and he began spending winters in the warmer climate of the French Riviera. On Sunday, September 4, 1847, just before leaving his home of nearly 30 years, Henry painfully climbed the steps into his pulpit at All-Saints, probably knowing this could be his last sermon before the humble people of Brixham. Later that afternoon he walked the familiar shore below Berry Head, gazing fondly at the town and the quiet bay he had come to love. At last, returning to his room, he penned the hymn expressing his most fervent prayer as evening closed over him. Based on Luke 24:29, it began…

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.

A few days later Henry left Lower Brixham, crossed the choppy English Channel, and headed toward Rome. He carried with him his new hymn, continuing to revise it as he traveled. In Nice, France, Henry’s weary lungs succumbed to the racking tuberculosis and he died at the Hotel de Angleterre, attended by a minister also staying there. Henry was buried at Nice in the English cemetery of Holy Trinity Church, while his last and most enduring song was sent back to Lower Brixham and given to his son-in-law. “Abide With Me” was sung at Henry’s memorial service in All-Saints Church.

Today nets and fishing gear symbolic of the parishioners Henry and Anne served hang in the vestry of the large church built later at Brixham. Meanwhile, his hymn is sung throughout the world by believers seeking the Lord’s abiding presence, especially at eventide.