[Today’s post is by John H. Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

I like hiking and rocks as much as the next man, so Cheddar Gorge near Broadhembury, County Devon, England is appealing. Look closely and you can see mountain goats with hooves clinging precariously to the sides of near-cliffs. Helmeted rock climbers clamber over ledges, and the whole area looks like the American West’s version of wilderness.

In the midst of all this natural beauty is the most famous rock of all, the one that supposedly Augustus Toplady took shelter in sometime around 1776 when a storm caught him and his horse. The story goes that he found shelter in a slanting cleft in this 100-foot mass of stone during a rain storm. He there related the stone to the reference to Christ as the Rock (1 Corinthians 10:4) and the cleft to Jesus’ wound from which issued blood and water (John 19:34)) Hence he conceived the idea of his hymn, “Rock of Ages.” Supposedly he found a playing card there on which to jot down his original idea.

The story is questionable, but possible. More likely August conceived “Rock of Ages” as a vehicle for advancing his belief in grace that opposed his antagonist John Wesley. Nonetheless, we enjoy the scene and the ambience. Jill stands by the cleft to give perspective as I take some pictures. Meanwhile Paul is taking the photos that really count. I reflect that preachers and hymn writers of the era were both hardy and original.

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[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

The afternoon in 2006 when we reached Lower Brixham on the coast of Devon, the sea was quiet and calm. We drove to Berry Head, now a hotel. Built as a hospital but never used as one, it was where Henry Lyte lived for 23 years as the rector of the town’s All-Saints Church.

By the time we checked in the afternoon was getting late, so Jill and Paul and I went out to watch the sunset and take some pictures. Berry Head is on Torbay (p. 20 in the book) and is a gorgeous setting as you face west.

Brixham is pretty far south, and—contrary to what people would expect—palm trees grown here. Next to one tree is a bench facing west, and today there was a solitary man sitting there watching the sun drop over the shore across the bay. He had his legs crossed, and one arm was draped over the back of the bench.

Paul went behind the bench to shoot a picture while we watched. As nearly as I could tell, the man never knew about that shot. Now his picture (page 20 again) is in 10,000 books distributed from America to Australia. I wonder if he’s ever seen it and now knows that his image has become one of the favored pictures in the primary photographic book on British hymns?

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Even hymn sites have their ghost stories. The supposed specter resident at Lew Trenchard, home of Sabine Baring-Gould, is Margaret. She was a family member a couple of centuries back known for her acerbic nature and generally bad attitude. No danger, just grumpy.

Story goes a couple and their little girl were staying at the now hotel when the child wandered into the hall and saw an old lady. “Who are you!?” the woman said. When the child asked back, “Who are you?” Margaret disappeared.

There’s a story, too, about a servant feeling someone was watching her as she crossed the courtyard. When she turned around, an old woman was watching her from a window, but vanished.

And the top tale is that someone opened Margaret’s crypt in Sabine’s church one day: Margaret is said to have raised herself up and said “Go away!”

Like all ghost stories—apocryphal (not the only hymn site story that is), but intriguing.

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Poor William [Cowper]. His life reminds you of the stories you hear today of kids suffering from ADD, depression or one of the other psychologically debilitating illnesses we just didn’t hear all that much about even 25 years ago. A brief account of his miserable life is in Abide with Me.

Right here, though, I’ll comment about the sad-sweet sense I get when I go to the little garden hut where he wrote. It’s at the back of the home of the widow Mary Unwin in Olney, where Cowper came to live in 1764. He’d just been released from an asylum where he had been sent after attempts at suicide. (He first prepared to go with poison or by stabbing himself with a pen knife but couldn’t muster up the nerve to follow through; then he tried hanging himself with a garter, but it broke.) So he came here to Olney to continue receiving the charity of the Unwin family.

The house is now the Cowper-Newton Museum. It backs up on the vicarage where Newton lived. In the rear there’s a very nice flower garden, and in the center (see the book) is this odd little hut with one room and three large windows above benches.

I’m sure William treasured his friendship with the great preacher, but being something of a recluse myself, I can relate to his sitting for hours in this shelter, even a shelter from the garden, I guess. He could look out on the orchard toward Newton’s house, or on the flowers that I assume grew there then, and, especially, on the sky. Like Poe, another depressed and brilliant soul, William sought release and the sky must have been a draw for him.

We know William principally for two songs, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” He wrote the first one in 1774, ten years after moving to Olney, to this garden, and to this little hut. I couldn’t prove that he wrote it sitting on one of the three benches, but it surely is easy to picture him there. Burdened by failure in love, in health, and in career, he must have longed for a “mysterious way” that would deliver him, release that could come from a source “Deep in unfathomable mines.”

I don’t know how much relief William got from sitting out here. Things didn’t get much better in his life. But enclosure in the little hut probably gave him some kind of psychological shelter. He knew a lot about how “the bud may have a bitter taste;” I’m sure he looked forward to the time with “sweet will be the flow’r.”

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” receives a 39 on our ranking of hymns. It is written by Isaac Watts, along with Charles Wesley, the greatest of the English hymn writers. Four times a day the chimes from a tower in the center of Southampton, Watts’ home city, ring out the tune of this great hymn. Even a cursory glance at the lyrics reveals why it is successful.

First, they are stately and dignified. Second, they are composed of simple words: most are one or two syllables. Third, the lyrics follow a logical order: they begin with praise (verses 1-2) and then proceed in the following verses to an account of the order of God’s creation. Finally, there is a return to praise for God’s care of his saints.

The rhythm of the hymn is also simple and easy to follow. Each verse consists of four parts, each part beginning and ending in an obvious and clear fashion. Further, the final word of parts one and three of each verse always rhyme, as do the final words of parts two and four of each verse.

So one of the two most-often-printed hymns of the decade covered is one of the simplest, but one of the grandest and most profound. Often it takes genius to produce that which is simple and profound.

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Earlier I mentioned an article by the American and Canadian Hymn Society journal, Hymns, that reported which hymns were the most published in 40 hymn books 1986-1996. I though some of you might be interested in how some well-known hymns ranked or where you favorites ranked.

Related to this matter is what makes a good hymn. In my view, among the most important factors are theme, poetry quality, and music quality.

Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, said, “To write a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” The same is true for hymns. “Amazing Grace” and “Rock of Ages” are great in part because they deal with mighty themes: the grace of God and the sacrificial death of Jesus. A song is not great only because of theme: a song with a great theme, but poor quality in poetic lyrics will not be great. But the theme must be there.

Great poetry involves many factors, but among them are word choice, syntax, metrical consistency, quality of rhyming, and fit of words to music, as well as many others. Only hymns that have these qualities survive.

I am not qualified to discuss music, but knowledgeable music scholars and teacher in music positions near you can comment on these.

Of the hundreds of hymns published in 40 hymnals during these years, none was published in all 40. That may be good, as it reflects good discrimination on the part of the publishers. Two hymns were published in 39 out of 40. We’ll give them a 39 point score. Those were “O God our Help in Ages Past” and “Silent Night.” We comment on the quality of these that led to their publication in our next blog.

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

One question raised about Abide with Me is how we selected the 24 hymns featured out of all of the thousands written during the last three centuries. Some answers are general. One of obvious popularity, such as with “Amazing Grace,” known to nearly every one and the title of a recent movie.

Another factor is the well-known story of the author, such as Newton’s slave trading and John Fawcett’s often-told story of deciding to give up a stable pulpit in London in order to stay with his poor flock at Wainsgate.

But one specific factor was based on research. An article in the journal The Hymn, published in July 1997 recorded the survey of 40 hymnbooks printed between 1976-1996. Included is a table of how many of the 40 hymnbooks published a given hymn. Clearly a hymn that was published in nearly all of the 40 is one of the world’s most beloved hymns. The highest ranking hymns and the number of times each appeared are below:

  • O (Our) God, our help in ages past – 39 times
  • Silent Night – 39
  • Amazing Grace – 38
  • Joy to the World – 38
  • Angels We Have Heard on High – 37
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing – 37
  • How Firm a Foundation – 37
  • Now Thank We All Our God – 37
  • O Come, All Ye Faithful – 37
  • Praise to the Lord, the Almighty – 37
  • All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name – 36
  • For All the Saints Who from Their Labors Cease – 36
  • O, Sacred Head, Now Wounded – 36

You will probably see that some of these are hymns you rarely or never sing yourself, but differing church groups in differing English-speaking countries know differing hymns, and know them well. These, too, are factors in choosing which hymns to feature in a book.