History of Hymns: “Abide with Me”

by Darrell St. Romain

"Abide with Me"
Henry Francis Lyte
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 700

Henry Francis Lyte

“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.”


Some have cited Henry Francis Lyte’s poem as the quintessential Victorian hymn. It appears in virtually every hymn book in the English language. 

Lyte was born in Kelso, Scotland, on June 1, 1793 and died in Nice, France, on Nov. 20, 1847. He was educated at Portora, the Royal School of Enniskillen in Enniskillen, Ireland, and at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where he graduated in 1814. During his tenure at Trinity College, Lyte was awarded the English Prize Poem on three occasions. 

After graduating, he intended to study medicine but instead took holy orders in the Anglican Church in 1815. Lyte served the curacies at Taghmon, Marazion and Cornwell. His longest appointment was perpetual curate at Lower Brixham, Devonshire, in 1823, where he served for 24 years. 

During Lyte’s lifetime, he published several works that were mainly religious poetry: Tales of the Lord’s Prayer in Verse (1826), Poems Chiefly Religious (1833), The Spirit of the Psalms (1834), and an edition of Poems of Henry Vaughan (1846). Most of the hymn texts that appear in today’s hymnals are taken from the collection The Spirit of the Psalms. 

There is some controversy to the exact dating of the text to “Abide with Me.” An article in the Spectator, Oct. 3, 1925, says that Lyte composed the hymn in 1820 while visiting a dying friend. 

However, in 1847, Lyte wrote a letter to his daughter Julia, where he referred to the hymn as “my latest effusion.” There is no clear evidence on when he actually wrote the hymn. According to Raymond Glover, editor to The Companion to Hymnal 1982, Lyte probably wrote the hymn in 1820, and recalled the hymn during the illness that led to his death in 1847. 

The hymn is based on Luke 24:29, part of a post-Resurrection narrative telling the story of Emmaus: “But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.” 

Hymnologist J.R. Watson notes, “Lyte’s genius takes the quotation and turns it into a metaphor for human life in all of its brevity. At the same time, by changing ‘Abide with us’ into ‘Abide with me,’ he deepens the feeling by making it speak to the individual, in prayer or meditation.” 

It is perhaps the personal intensity of the text, the use of the metaphor of evening and the closing line, “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me,” that makes this hymn a favorite at funerals. 

Of the original eight stanzas, The United Methodist Hymnal uses five. The second stanza reflects much of the Victorian spirit:

“Swift from my grasp ebbs out life’s little day,
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away,
Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.”

A focus on death and the corresponding transience of life is characteristic of Victorian hymns. John Bell, troubadour of Scotland’s Iona Community and a liturgical reformer, traces some of the complacency of the church over the years and its inability to change to the theology embedded in the third line of this stanza: “Change and decay in all around I see.” 

Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’” 

The text to “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide” first appeared in the famous Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), but it may be the hymn tune EVENTIDE by William Henry Monk, the musical editor of the hymnal, that has assured its continual use.
 

Mr. St. Romain is a sacred music student of Dr. Michael Hawn at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

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