History of Hymns: “For All The Saints”

by C. Michael Hawn
William Walsham How

Bishop William Walsham How

For All the Saints
by William Walsham How
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 711

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) was educated at Oxford and served through the ranks until elected Bishop Suffragan in East London (1879-1888) and Bishop of Wakefield (1888-1897), the latter being a poor, smoky industrial parish. Early in his service to Wakefield, he comforted the families of miners killed in a disaster, although later he failed to resolve a miners’ strike. While serving in London, he ministered in the slums of the East Side for little pay and with no social prestige.

How declined prestigious appointments as bishop of Manchester and Durham. In London, his parishioners called him by various popular titles including “the children’s bishop,” “the poor man’s bishop,” and “the omnibus bishop,” the latter designation for his frequent travel among the people of his parish. Instead of riding in a private coach like many bishops, he took public transportation, working and living among the poorer people.

Writing his first hymn at age thirteen, How produced many of his hymns early in his career, while he was a rector at Whittington (1851-1853), a rural hamlet on the Welsh border. He wrote many of his hymns for people who had little education. His hymns total around sixty, with more than a third appearing in British and American hymnals — a large percentage of his total output.

Though his hymn writing came primarily from his earlier years, How was active in the field of hymnal production throughout most his life. He co-edited Psalms and Hymns (1854 and 1864) with a Supplement (1867); the SPCK [Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge] Church Hymns (1871, 1874, 1881); and Children’s Hymn Book (1881). His own collection, Hymns, was published in 1886. The apex of How’s recognition as a hymn writer was his commission to compose a hymn text for the Diamond Jubilee [60th anniversary of the reign] of  Queen Victoria (1897).

Originally, “For all thy saints” [italics added] was written for All Saints’ Day and published in Horatio Nelson’s Hymns for Saints’ Days and Other Hymns (1864). The heading was “A Cloud of Witnesses,” a reference to Hebrews 12:1: “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us . . .” (KJV). After appearing in Church Hymns (1871) with the revised title “For all the saints,” its usage spread.

This hymn is a commentary on the article in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Within the Anglican tradition, the relationship with the faithful on earth—The Church Militant—and the saints in heaven—The Church Triumphant—is paramount. This hymn emphasizes this union.

Originally eleven stanzas, this hymn is usually edited to six or fewer stanzas in most hymnals. Omitted stanzas include “For the Apostles’ glorious company” [stanza 3], “For the Evangelists” [stanza 5], and “For Martyrs [stanza 6].” These stanzas enhance our understanding of the heritage of the saints:

For the Apostles’ glorious company, 
Who, bearing forth the cross o’er land and sea, 
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to thee,         

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,
Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord
Is fair and fruitful, be thy name adored,        

For Martyrs, who, with rapture-kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And died to grasp it, thee we glorify,        

The omission of these stanzas places the militant metaphors in the other stanzas in the forefront. In the context of the Anglican theology of the Church Militant on earth, however, this makes sense:

Original stanza 2: “. . . thou Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight . . . “

Original stanza 4: “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
                               Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old . . .”

Original stanza 8: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long . . .”

Original stanza 9: “. . . soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest . . . “

The omitted original stanza 10 alludes to the Church Triumphant:

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.

Carlton Young notes that for many years this hymn was sung among Methodists only at memorial services during annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences. The Anglican and Roman Catholic tradition of observing All Saints’ Day on or near November 1 gave way to celebrations of Reformation Day on October 31. As Christian funerals have been removed from churches to the more domestic settings of funeral parlors, this hymn has been used less often, since funeral parlors are not usually settings where congregational singing takes place with the support of choirs and pipe organs (Young, 1993, 337-338).

During and following World War II, memorial observances became much more common in Methodist life, and All Saints’ Day gained a foothold among the key Sundays of the Christian Year.

The tune that is now most common in the United States, SINE NOMINE, by the famous English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), was not always a favorite. For at least half of the twentieth century, the Victorian tune SARUM by Joseph Barnby (1838-1896) was the preferred tune by many, and still is by some. ENGLEBURG by Charles Villiers Stanford (1952-1924) initially was used often, but Vaughan Williams’ stirring melody won the day after its publication in The English Hymnal (1906), for which the composer served as music editor.

SINE NOMINE (literally “without a name” in Latin) appeared as one of four anonymous tunes in The English Hymnal. Carl Daw, Jr. notes that the Latin tune name was equivalent to the undesignated “anonymous” musical setting later attributed to Vaughan Williams. He further suggests that Vaughan Williams “may have wished to avoid overt competition with ENGLEBURG, the tune written for this text by his former teacher C. V. Stanford and published only two years earlier in the 1904 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern” (Daw, 2016, 330).

The final stanza fully consummates the Church Triumphant:

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost:

For Further Reading:

Daw, Carl P., Jr., Glory to God: A Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016.

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



C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The United Methodist Hymnal

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