History of Hymns: "Sweet Hour of Prayer"
"Sweet Hour of Prayer"
William W. Walford
The UM Hymnal, No. 496
Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!
That calls us from a world of care,
And bids me at my Father’s throne
Make all my wants and wishes known.
In seasons of distress and grief;
My soul has often found relief,
And oft escaped the tempter’s snare
By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!
This hymn goes to the heart of one of the most intrinsic Christian practices: prayer. For William W. Walford (1772-1850), prayer was an intensely private affair where one seeks refuge from temptations and trials and pours out the depths of one’s soul before God who already knows our “wants and wishes.”
The kind of prayer fostered in this hymn is private prayer, rather than prayers of the body of Christ gathered in worship.
Stanza one focuses on petitionary prayer that responds to “seasons of distress and fear.” Stanza two focuses on prayers of thanksgiving where the singer shares “the joys I feel.” Stanza three returns to petitions, but the focus is on the God “whose truth and faithfulness engage the waiting soul to bless.”
The text appears to come from Walford, an obscure, blind lay preacher who served in the hamlet of Coleshill, Warwickshire, England, in the mid-19th century. He owned a small trinket shop in the village.
The story goes that a Congregational minister and friend, Thomas Salmon, stopped by Walford’s shop one day in 1842. Walford asked if Salmon would write down his new poem on the subject of prayer. Three years later, Salmon was in the U.S. and showed the poem to the editor of the New York Observer, who printed it in the Sept. 13, 1845 issue.
The text first appeared in the 1859 Baptist hymnal Church Melodies, edited by Thomas Hastings and Robert Turnbull. The famous American gospel song writer, William Bradbury (1816-1868)—who composed music for so many beloved gospel hymns such as “Just As I Am” (Charlotte Elliott), “The Solid Rock” (Edward Mote) and “He Leadeth Me” (Joseph H. Gilmore)—also wrote the music for this favorite hymn in 1861.
The tune and text appeared together for the first time in Bradbury’s collection Golden Chains, from which it has become a staple of hymnals around the world.
The late William J. Reynolds, noted Baptist hymnologist and former author of this column, questioned the authorship of the hymn as described by Salmon. His extensive research could not locate a William W. Walford in Coleshill, but did note that there was a Rev. William Walford, a Congregational minister who served as president of Homerton Academy, who wrote several books including The Manner of Prayer.
Coleshill and Homerton are about 110 miles apart, more than two hours by car today, but much longer in the mid-19th century. Reynolds noted, however, that there are similarities between The Manner of Prayer and the hymn.
It is entirely possible that Salmon embellished his story to the editor of the New York Observer. It is also possible, Reynolds suggested, that William W. Walford of Coleshill and William Walford of Homerton are one and the same.
The original stanza four has been dropped from many hymnals today, but it stresses the eschatological nature of prayer as the gateway to heaven:
Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer,
May I thy consolations share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height,
I view my home, and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise,
To seize the everlasting prize;
And shout, while passing through the air,
Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer.
At the risk of offending some, I should point out that this view of devotional prayer, while certainly valid, should not be confused with public prayers of thanksgiving, adoration, petition, intercession and blessing that are a part of the gathered body of Christ.
While I believe this hymn has a place in a hymnal, it does not for example stress prayers for the world—or prayers of the people, as they are sometimes called. This is not a hymn that fosters corporate prayer, but private devotions.
The romanticized language adds a tone that stresses withdrawal from the world rather than engagement with the needs of the world as the body of Christ. Thus, while a powerful hymn and a sentimental favorite, I suggest that it has little use in public worship, but is more appropriate for individual devotion.