History of Hymns: "I Need Thee Every Hour"
By C. Michael Hawn
"I Need Thee Every Hour"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 397
I need thee every hour,
most gracious Lord;
no tender voice like thine
can peace afford.
I need thee, O I need thee;
every hour I need thee;
O bless me now, my Savior,
I come to thee.
This hymn by Annie Sherwood Hawks (1835-1918) reflects the same general characteristics as those of the other four 19th-century women hymn writers discussed during Lent.
The women all employ first-person accounts that grow out a deep personal piety, resulting in a language of intimacy between the singer and the Savior.
A New York native, Hawks displayed a gift for verse at the early age of 14, contributing poems on a regular basis to a variety of newspapers. Though she composed over 400 hymn texts, "I Need Thee Every Hour" is the only hymn of hers that is still sung today.
Following her marriage to Charles Hawks in 1859, much of Hawks' life centered on the domestic aspects of rearing three children. She was a member of Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., where Dr. Robert Lowry, a prominent writer of gospel songs, was her pastor. Lowry encouraged the gift that he saw in Hawks' poetry.
We have a personal account of the genesis of "I Need Thee Every Hour": Hawks writes, "One day as a young wife and mother of 37 years of age, I was busy with my regular household tasks during a bright June morning [in 1872]. Suddenly, I became so filled with the sense of nearness to the Master that, wondering how one could live without Him, either in joy or pain, these words were ushered into my mind, the thought at once taking full possession of me -- 'I Need Thee Every Hour. . . .'"
Lowry added a refrain as he wrote the music for the hymn.
Ira Sankey, the great revival musician for Dwight Moody, used this hymn at the National Baptist Sunday School Association Convention the same year, 1872. It then appeared in Royal Diadem for the Sunday School, an 1873 collection compiled by Lowry and William Doane.
The phrase "I need thee" is at the center of the intimacy expressed in this hymn. Its persistent repetition is a common device used by hymn writers of the era. With the refrain added by Lowry, Hawks' hymn pleads "I need thee" 20 times when all five stanzas are sung!
This close relationship with Christ stands in stark contrast to more objective hymns based, for example, on God's mighty acts and the theology of the Trinity. Perhaps the Christian life exists somewhere between these two poles of praising the all-powerful God and craving the intimacy of a personal relationship with Jesus.
Many Christians today struggle with the language of submission that accompanies some 19th-century gospel hymns. For example, Fanny Crosby (1820-1915) begins the second stanza of "Blessed Assurance," with "Perfect submission, perfect delight." Lowry's refrain adds "I come to thee" - another note of submission - to Hawks' "I need thee every hour."
These personal devotional hymns by 19th-century women have their place. They provide glimpses into the lives of women segregated from the positions of leadership (even in the Church) by gender, leading lives separate from their spouses primarily in domestic settings, and with little or no voice in the public arena.
Now, the sermons and speeches made by so many men in the public sectors of church and society have long been forgotten, but the songs of these women, whose primary arena was the relative quiet of the home, are still sung.
Following the death of her husband, Hawks reflected on the power of her song: "I did not understand at first why this hymn had touched the great throbbing heart of humanity. It was not until long after, when the shadow fell over my way, the shadow of a great loss, that I understood something of the comforting power in the words which I had been permitted to give out to others in my hour of sweet serenity and peace."
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.