Article

History of Hymns: “O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go”

by C. Michael Hawn

"O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go"
George Matheson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 480

George Matheson

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.


Many hymn writers say they struggle when composing a hymn text, revising and tweaking it until the meter and choice of images are exactly right. Others conceive the hymn as a whole and transmit it to paper as quickly as they can write it down. In the case of “O Love that wilt not let me go,” a mystical experience inspired the creative process.

George Matheson (1842-1906) provides us with an account of the origins of one of the most beloved hymns of the late 19th century: “My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. . . . Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself.

“I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high. I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse.”

This hymn was published in 1882 while he was in Innellan, Argyllshire. Though some have speculated, we are not sure of the cause of the intense suffering that led to the composition of this hymn. It was first published in the Church of Scotland monthly magazine Life and Work in January 1882 (some say 1883) and soon afterward in the Scottish Hymnal (1885).

Though nearly blind by age 18, Matheson became a brilliant student at Glasgow University. He never married, and his sister learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew to help him through his theological studies. She also helped with his pastoral responsibilities.

He served effectively as a minister in parishes in Glasgow, and in 1886 became the pastor of the 2,000-member St. Bernard’s Parish Church in Edinburgh. Matheson authored several books on theology and one volume of poetry, Sacred Songs (1890). He was awarded the Doctor of Divinity degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1879 and the LL.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1902.

Albert L. Peace (1844-1912), a well-known Scottish organist of his day, wrote the tune ST. MARGARET at the request of the Scottish Hymnal Committee. According to Peace, the tune came to him as quickly as the text had come to Matheson: “After reading it over carefully, I wrote the music straight off, and may say that the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune.”

Each of the four stanzas begins with a key word—Love, Light, Joy and Cross—that are not only attributes of his relationship with Christ, but also names given to Christ. Love is a haven for a “weary soul” and is as deep as the “ocean.” The second stanza focuses on Light that illumines the way of the singer. Our “flickering torch” is augmented by the “sunshine’s blaze” of Christ, the Light of the world.
Stanza three is one of Joy—a joy that seeks for us “through pain.” The “rainbow” is a promise of hope following the rain indicating that “morn shall tearless be.”

The Cross is the theme of the concluding stanza. Through Christ’s suffering on the cross “blossoms red” are formed that lead to the birth of new life.

Citing the Handbook of the Church Hymnary (1951) by Scottish hymnologists James Moffat and Millar Patrick, Carlton Young notes that when Matheson “wrote ‘blossoms red’… he was thinking of the blossom that comes out of sacrifice—the sacrificial life which blossoms by shedding itself. ‘White’ is the blossom of prosperity, ‘red’ of self-sacrificing love.”
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns