[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.]

The Lake District of England is one of the world’s most scenic places. Thousands come each summer to walk the trails, view the low ranges of mountains, and ponder the sky as it changes from blue to misty grey.

Tucked in a nook of this idyllic setting a few miles from the town of Ambleside, and down a quiet winding road is the community of Brathay. The center of activity here for a century and a half, or so, has been Holy Trinity Church. A tall, ivy-covered tower houses the entrance, and inside an especially fine arched wooden ceiling assures beautiful acoustics for church music.

It happened in the winter of 1883, when Miss Katherine Blomfield and her family from London were visiting Ambleside at Howsley Cottage and planning her wedding to prominent Brathay surgeon Hugh Redmayne just three weeks away. The bride-to-be was still needing a song for her wedding and was a tad nervous, but she was attracted by a hymn entitled, “Strength and Stay.”

The original lyrics of the hymn were written in Latin in the fourth century by St. Ambrose, but had recently been translated by into English by John Ellerton and F.J.A. Hunt. Although not a song intended for a wedding, it was the tune that Katherine really wanted, and now wanted rather badly.

The frustrated bride-to-be turned to her older sister, Dorothy, who was known for her poetry and said, “What’s the use of a sister who composes poetry if she cannot write new words to a favorite tune? I would like to use this tune at my wedding.

What happened next is one of Britain’s favorite hymn stories. Dorothy replied if everyone would leave her alone, she would see what she could do. She then picked up the song and retired to the cottage librarry. Thirty minutes later (some say fifteen) she emerged with the words now famous.

Like those of St. Ambrose, Dorothy’s words constitute a prayer, this one for a young couple. God is addressed with the names of “perfect Love” and “perfect Life” and asked to grant the couple love (verse 1); faith, hope, endurance, and trust (verse 2); and joy, peace, and a final place in heaven (verse 3).

Six years later, Dorothy’s hastily written song soared in popularity. First, it was placed in the popular hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern. Then it enjoyed the best fortune a British wedding hymn could have: Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princes Louise of Wales, daughter of King Edward VII and sister of King George V, chose “O Perfect Love” for her wedding to Alexander George Duff, first Duke of Fife, at Buckingham Palace. She also asked famous composer Joseph Barnaby for a fresh tune, and he wrote, “Sandringham,” named after the palace where the princess had been brought up. “O Perfect Love” soon became the choice of brides-to-be in Britain and America and held its place for the next half century.

Dorothy never exercised copyright for the hymn, though it might have brought her considerable returns. She later married Gerald Gurney, and later they were received into the Roman Catholic Church. She died in 1932 and enjoys the reputation of having remained the cheerful, helpful lady she was to her sister. In 1986 one of her descendents, Judith Gurney, was married at Brathay church. The guests sang “O Perfect Love.”

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