Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: ‘Day Is Dying in the West’

History of Hymns: ‘Day Is Dying in the West’

By C. Michael Hawn

“Day Is Dying in the West”
by Mary Lathbury
The United Methodist Hymnal, 687

Day is dying in the west;
heaven is touching earth with rest;
wait and worship white the night
sets the evening lamps alight
through all the sky.


Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of thee!
Heaven and earth are praising thee,
O Lord most high!

Evening hymns have a long heritage in the annals of congregational song. “O Gladsome Light,” a fourth-century hymn also known by its Greek title Phos hilaron, is one of the earliest with this theme. It was sung in the evening lamp-lighting liturgy and is still in use today. (See https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-o-gladsome-light.) “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night” (ca. 1674), an evening hymn written for an English boy’s school by Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken (1637-1711), concluding with what we commonly call “The Doxology,” was composed as part of the boarding school evening prayer that took place just before the boys went to sleep. (See https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-all-praise-to-thee-my-god-this-night.) “The Day Thou Gave Us, Lord, Is Ended” (1870) by British Anglican priest John Ellerton (1826-1893) presents a global world view that corresponds with English presence around the world as a colonial power. (See https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-the-day-thou-gavest-lord-is-ended.) This is still a revered hymn in the Anglican tradition, especially for evening prayer, known as evensong when sung.

To this long line of venerable evening hymns, each composed for a specific context, we add a worthy American Methodist contribution by Mary Artemisia Lathbury (1841-1913), daughter of a Methodist minister and a tireless Methodist laywoman known for her temperance advocacy, contributions of prose, poetry, and illustrations to various magazines, editor of the Methodist Sunday School Union, a founder of the Methodist Youth Legion (1885), and, most importantly for this hymn, a promoter of the Lake Chautauqua Institution in upper New York State. Chautauqua, as it is commonly known in Methodist circles, was originally a place for Methodist Sunday school teachers to gather in the summer to renew themselves and prepare to teach their classes in local congregations during the next church year. The institution is alive and well (https://chq.org/), with a nine-week summer schedule that includes activities for the family, concerts, art and literary exhibitions, lectures, and recreation. Some congregations sponsor their own mini-Chautauqua events during the summer.

Mary Lathbury was so closely associated with Chautauqua during her day that she was known as the “Laureate of Chautauqua” for her hymns, especially “Break Thou the Bread of Life” (1877), a hymn about the study of Scripture beside Lake Chautauqua (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-break-thou-the-bread-of-life), and “Day Is Dying in the West” (1877). Both hymns were written at the request of Lake Chautauqua Institution founder and Methodist Bishop John H. Vincent for the opening service on August 6, 1877. The Assembly Herald, noted that

. . . (after . . . the reading of Isaiah 55), the congregation joined in singing of the following hymns, written expressly for the occasion . . .. ‘Day is dying in the west . . .’” (first two stanzas only). This has become the traditional opening for each Sunday Vesper Service at 5 p.m., and the Sacred Music Service at 8 p.m. [held in the amphitheater] and, as such, has become a permanent part of each participant (Young, 314).

Noted gospel song composer George C. Stebbins (1846-1945) was present for the first singing and describes it as follows:

On Saturday evening, in August, about 2,000 people gathered on the shores of Lake Chautauqua. On the water near the shore was a boat in which were the Professor and I. About this central boat were thirty other little boats filled with men, women, and children. It was a beautiful scene and a very impressive sight as we sang this lovely hymn together (Quoted in Osbeck, 62).

Only the first two stanzas were composed for the 1877 premier and published in The Calvary Selection of Spiritual Songs with music: for use in social meetings (New York, 1878), edited by Charles S. Robinson and Robert S. MacArthur. As the hymn became more widely used, it was felt that two stanzas were not enough. Thus, at the request of Methodist hymnologist and pastor C.S. Harrower, D.D., Lathbury added two more stanzas in 1890. A facsimile from a slightly later edition (1883) of the first publication follows. The tune name given in this publication is EVENING PRAISE. The meter is listed as P.M., a designation no longer used in the U.S.A., which stands for “Peculiar or Particular Meter,” indicating that is was not a commonly used meter such as S.M. (short meter), C.M. (common meter), or L.M. (long meter). The United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young suggests, “The tune should be sung in the style of a lullaby – gentle, rocking, and reflective – to complement the poem’s quiet and nurturing metaphors and symbols, not as in a waltz” (Young, 315). For a thoroughly delightful rendition of this hymn, take a moment and view this site: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ro76lDZ8qtQ.

The music CHAUTAUQUA (formerly EVENING PRAISE), associated with the hymn from its inception, was composed by the director of music at Lake Chautauqua, William F. Sherwin (1826-1888), who was “renowned for his ability to work with amateur singers” (Young, 830). Sherwin had studied with eminent American music educator, hymn tune writer, and choral director Lowell Mason (1792-1872). His hymn tunes, CHAUTAUQUA and BREAD OF LIFE, both reflect the uniform vertical four-part writing style, a slow harmonic rhythm and simple harmony, with limited chromaticism and vocal range that also characterized many of Mason’s hymn tunes; for example DENNIS, HAMBURG, BETHANY, and OLIVET. Sherwin’s tunes, like Mason’s, are easily sung in four parts by those with limited or no music reading skills. In short, this was the style of hymn writing associated with mainline “churchly” Protestant hymns in the later nineteenth century, in contrast to the more lively evangelical gospel songs with wider ranges, extensive refrains, bouncy 6/8 meters, and occasional independent rhythms between men’s and women’s parts.

Turning to the text, the first striking feature is the nearly direct quotation of the initial section of the Sanctus in the refrain: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of thee! O Lord most high!” This acclamation of awe-filled praise, a Trisagion derived from Isaiah 6:3, sets the tone for the entire hymn, not as part of the Eucharist or Holy Communion, but as a eucharistic prayer of praise and thanksgiving to God for the act of creation where “heaven is touching earth with rest” (stanza 1); this includes the beauty of the day, the constancy of the cycles of day and night, the “embrace” of a loving God, and the assurance of an “eternal morning rise.”

Even though the four stanzas were written at two different times, they form a seamless whole as the singer watches or imagines the sun’s gradual descent with each successive stanza:

Stanza 1: Day is dying in the west;
heaven is touching earth with rest;
wait and worship while the night
sets the evening lamps alight
throughout the sky.

Comment: We gaze at the gradual sunset in the west where day and night, heaven and earth seem to meld into one. Gradually, the stars become visible.

Stanza 2: Lord of life, beneath the dome
of thy universe, thy home
gather us to seek thy face
to the fold of thy embrace
for thou art nigh.

Comment: As the darkness deepens, we become more aware of the heavenly “dome” of the infinite sky. Rather than sensing loneliness, we see God’s face and feel God’s presence even more deeply.

Stanza 3: While the deepening shadows fall,
heart of love enfolding all,
through the glory and the grace
of the stars that veil thy face,
our hearts ascend.

Comment: The fading light gives way to “deepening shadows,” yet we sense even more deeply God’s love, glory, and grace just beneath the veil of stars that shield our vision from God. But because God’s heart of love first reached out to us, “our hearts ascend” to God in response.

Stanza 4: When forever from our sight
pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
let eternal morning rise

and shadows end.

Comment: We long not just for the dawn of a new day, but for an eternal morning when night will be passed and “shadows end.”

Carlton R. Young summarizes the poem well: “The poet skillfully expresses the cosmic in gentle, nurturing, mature, and deity metaphors: ‘evening lamps,’ ‘dome of the universe,’ ‘fold of thy embrace,’ and ‘heart of Love enfolding all’” (Young, 315).

The hymn generally receives positive reviews. A British hymnologist of the last century, W. Garrett Horder (1841-1922), wrote an introduction to a posthumously published collection Poems of Mary Artemisia Lathbury, Chautauqua Laureate (1915). The hymn appears in this collection under the section labeled “Chautauqua Carols” with the title “Evening Praise” (p. 31). He noted:

Perhaps I may tell the curious way that I became acquainted with what is probably her finest hymn, “Day is Dying in the West.” One day a parcel of books reached me wrapped in old sheets of printed matter. Among these was an order of first lines of some hymnal issues in America. My eye lighted on the first line of the hymn to which I have referred. I said to myself, “Surely this must be a fine hymn” but whose is it and where it could be found, I did not know. Not long afterwards [someone] sent me some recently published hymnals, and in one of them I found the hymn I desired to see, and found that it was all and more than I expected. Indeed in my judgment it is one of the finest and most distinctive hymns of modern times. It deserves to rank with “Lead kindly Light,” of Cardinal Newman, for its picturesqueness and allusionness, and above all else for this, that devout souls, no longer matter what their distinctive beliefs, can through it voice their deepest feelings and aspirations (Poems, 14-15).

For a British hymnologist to rank the hymn by Mary Lathbury, an American Methodist, alongside “Lead kindly Light” (1833), the most beloved hymn of the esteemed Anglo-Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890) is an exceptional accolade.

On the other hand, American hymnologist Albert E. Bailey, writing for a 1950 publication, was not entirely taken with the hymn, viewing it more provincially:

The hymn is close to the heart of nature and expresses the feelings engendered by the sunset and twilight hours. It has been used as the opening hymn for the Sunday evening services at Chautauqua for over sixty years. The only part of the hymn that could be omitted or changed without loss is the final stanza where the thought of death intrudes. That is a hang-over from earlier evangelical writers who felt that no hymn could be complete without landing us in heaven (Bailey, 506).

From the perspective of this writer, Bailey failed to notice that ending hymns on a “heavenly note” was a primary feature of Charles Wesley’s verse and integral to Methodist theology where Christian perfection (imago Christi) is consummated in heaven. Chautauqua, a thoroughly Methodist gathering at least in its formation, would probably have absorbed this eschatological perspective not just because heavenly themes were employed by evangelical hymns of the last half of the nineteenth century, but because it is part of Wesleyan DNA.

Undoubtedly, Chautauqua gatherings sang fervently the final stanza of Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” While Lathbury’s closing stanza is not of the same caliber as Wesley’s, we can safely assume that, as an ardent Methodist, she comes by her heavenly leanings naturally and honestly:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
perfectly restored in thee;
changed from glory in to glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before they,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Sources and Further Reading

Albert E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950).

Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 1982).

Poems of Mary Artemisia Lathbury, Chautauqua Laureate (Minneapolis: The Nunc Licet Press, 1915), https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.hx4x3i;view=2up;seq=8.

J. Richard Watson and Carlton Young. "Mary Artemisia Lathbury." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed March 30, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/mary-artemisia-lathbury.

Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

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