Home History of Hymns: "O Word of God Incarnate"

History of Hymns: "O Word of God Incarnate"

"O Word of God Incarnate"
William W. How
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 598

William W. How

O Word of God incarnate,
O Wisdom from on high,
O Truth unchanged, unchanging
O Light of our dark sky:
we praise you for the radiance
that from the hallowed page,
a lantern to our footsteps
shines on from age to age.


Anglican Bishop William Walsham How (1823-1897) is best know for one of the great All Saints Day hymns, “For all the saints who from their labors rest.” While one of the great legacies to the church from the 19th century, we actually learn more about How from his hymn on scripture, “O Word of God incarnate.”

If not a unique bishop of his time, How was certainly an anomaly. He rejected offers to serve as bishop in prestigious settings such as Manchester and Durham and instead ministered in a slum area of London, a choice that resulted in his designation as “the poor man’s bishop.” While other bishops often lived in luxurious settings and were conveyed by private coach, How lived and worked with his people, traveling by public transportation.

While many churchmen were appalled by the doctrine of evolution and the feeling that science challenged the truth of the Bible, How was much more discerning. In his 1887 sermon “The Bible and Science,” How observed that evolution included many facts and theories that were difficult to dispute, and added one could not state categorically that “[a]ll such-like speculations are straight against God’s Word and therefore utterly untrue.”

Even Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), grandfather of Aldous Huxley, and a leader in the scientific debate in England who was often known as “Darwin’s Bulldog,” cites the sermon in his book, Science and the Christian Tradition (1902). According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, Huxley “says that the Bishop was one of the few people who so treated . . . religion and science that he felt he could go along with him.”

Yet at the same time, this Oxford-educated clergyman had a “high” view of Scripture as this hymn attests. This hymn in praise of the Bible is based on Psalm 119:105, “For the commandment is a lamp; and the law is light; and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.” It first appeared in a joint publication, Supplement to Psalms and Hymns (1867), with T.B. Morrell.

The first line of the hymn echoes John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Successive biblical metaphors elaborate the nature of the Word: “Wisdom” (James 3:17), “Truth” (John 14:6), “Light” (John 1:4), “lantern to our footsteps” (Psalm 199:105).

In stanza two, the church, given the Word from “our Savior,” becomes its custodian who is to lift the light “o’er all the earth to shine.” The Bible is a “sacred vessel” (originally “casket”) “where gems of truth are stored.” The Word paints a “heaven-drawn picture of Christ, [who is] “the living Word.”

Stanza three begins with an evangelical focus, as “Scripture is a banner before God’s host unfurled”—a sense of what the Anglican Church calls the Church Militant. In the next line the focus switches from “banner” to “beacon”—an image of hope. The Bible then becomes a “chart and compass”—a meaningful image for a seafaring nation whose exploits at sea were both a source of wealth and a protection.

The final stanza is a prayer that petitions Christ to “make your church… a lamp of purest gold” and to “teach your wandering pilgrims by this their path to trace.” Ultimately, the goal is eschatological, where we will see Christ in heaven “face to face.”

How’s 54 hymns were all written between 1858 and 1871 while he was a rector at Whittington, before becoming Suffragan Bishop of East London, and in 1888, the first Bishop of Wakefield. He once said, “A good hymn should be like a good prayer—simple, real, earnest, and reverent.” How was a modernist who studied thoughtfully the latest scientific thinking of his day and still fully embraced Scripture—a model for us over 100 years later.

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