[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.]

We love the great hymns, don’t we? But the words, or lyrics, of hymns are poetry. And poetry is sometimes difficult to understand. So often people sing the words of a hymn for years and love those words, but they don’t fully understand them. As an English professor I encounter this problem many times with many people—including myself! So in GREAT HYMN! WHAT’S IT MEAN? We’ll look at short phrases of great hymns and together we can figure out their meaning and understand them better and therefore love the hymns even more.

Night snow

We’ll start with “Silent Night.” This hymn was written in the German language and later translated into English, and when that happens there is often a further difficulty. Let’s look at the first two groups of words:

Silent night, holy night!

This group of words is actually an independent unit, a kind of exclamation, and stand by themselves. But most word groups in hymns are sentences: you start with the first word, usually capitalized, find the subject and the verb, and read until you get to the period or question mark or other end punctuation mark such as these: . ; : ? !

So the next sentence is

All is calm, all is bright; [A]Round yon[der] virgin and child.

Here’s where the confusion often comes in. Because we all pause for breath after the word “bright” we tend to disconnect the first line from the second. Actually then, the sentence stars with “All” and ends with “child” and reads “All is calm and bright around the virgin and child over yonder.”

Bethlehem, Israel, from Tantur

More 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.]

An abandoned factory by a now-clean stream is about as good a symbol of the former days of Hebden Bridge [England] as you’ll find, I suppose. It looks like something out of Dickens: monotonous rows of windows that were inserted, not for aesthetics, but for light enough for workers to do their equally monotonous jobs. This is Yorkshire, where the skies are gray and the moors are bleak and Emily Bronte wrote her morose Wuthering Heights.

 

Abandoned factory in Hebden Bridge

Fortunately, I guess, the artists came over the last decade or two, so now this factory town is something of an art haven. Up the hill is Wainsgate Church, where John Fawcett was the preacher when he wrote “Blest Be the Tie.” You probably know the story, and I’ll talk about that in another blog. But for now, let’s be aware that not all English hymns were written around green pastures dotted by sheep. It’s kind of bleak here, but a preacher came to bring hope and good news.

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

John and Charles Wesley were two of eighteen children born to their parents, so I suppose finding a way to make yourself stand out was even more of a challenge than with most of us with siblings. Still, they didn’t have much trouble. John’s indomitable will and apparent leadership skills caused him to excel inevitably, especially after he and Charles came to Oxford. The Wesley rooms in Lincoln College breathe his presence.

John also influenced Charles to go on the not-so-successful journey to America for mission work. They didn’t stay long and returned to England. Charles kept on following his brother, though, which led him to settle with John in Bristol and buy a house there for the family. This was not far from New Room, which John built for his school, for worship, and for a meeting place for Methodist ministers.
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One of the most intriguing features of the large meeting room is the pulpit, or more accurately the pulpits. There are two, one behind and higher than the other. This arrangement allowed both brothers to do what they did best. John preached from the higher one (naturally), but Charles had his opportunity to sing from the lower. Many of the great hymns that he composed (hymns like “A Charge to Keep I Have,” Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” “Hark,! The Herald Angels Sing”) were first led from this pulpit. It’s rare that you can find an exact spot where history was made, but that approximately six feet of space is one of the great places in hymnody.

[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.]

Philip Doddridge, author of “O Happy Day,” set the standard for industry and toughness. He got up every morning at 5:00, and at least one of his students must have gotten up then too, because Philip had a student read to him while he was shaving so as not to waste time. I’m doing well to get up by 6:30 and listen to the Today show while munching through a bowl of shredded wheat.

My father was a preacher, and we lived on a modest level while I was growing up. But I was the only child at home during those years: my brother and sister were grown and married. Life was not that hard for me. Philip was the twentieth child of his parents, and only he and one sister survived past childhood. He later recalled how his mother taught him Bible stories from the pictures on the blue-and-white Dutch tiles of the fireplace. Both parents were dead by the time he was thirteen, and an appointed guardian wasted what little inheritance he was supposed to get. That’s an ordeal I never came close to having to face.

Still, Philip performed so well at the Dissenting Academy at Kibworth in Leicestershire that when the headmaster died he was asked to become headmaster himself. That started him on a brilliant but demanding career as educator and preacher.

I’ve found that people raised in fairly comfortable circumstances are still often hard workers and quite disciplined. But I must recognize that a hard life surely produced a tireless and impressive man in Philip. Doing hard work on the farm and working your way through school are not the only keys to success, but I’ll grant that in many cases like Philip’s they may have been better than today’s computer at age twelve and a car at age sixteen.

[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.]

Most of the classic hymns were written by men, usually Anglican or Dissenter preachers. Of the relatively few women, some leaned toward the independent side.

Frances Havergal, composer of “I Gave My Life for Thee” and “Take My Life and Let it Be,” was consistently devout, and she just as consistently dismissed anything that would interfere with her Bible study, evangelism, and hymn writing. An attractive woman from a well-to-do family, she received several offers of marriage, but she declined them all in order to keep herself undistracted from her church work. Evidently she excluded domestic distractions, as well. An anonymous booklet about her found in the public library of her home town of Stourport, possibly written by her sister, reads “She probably never did a household chore in her life, and took no apparent interest in anything that was going on in the world apart from saving souls for Christ.”

Sarah Flower Adams, writer of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was the daughter of a liberal newspaper editor, a romantic poet, a beautiful woman, an actress, and a very independent lady. She was involved in political and social issues and belonged to William Johnson Fox’s Unitarian South Place Chapel in Finsbury Circus, London. She was married to William Bridges Adams, but their agreement was that she would not do housework.

How this mindset of these two ladies affected the content of their hymns might be worthy of study.

[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.”