Home History of Hymns: "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended"

History of Hymns: "The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended"

"The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended"
John Ellerton
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 690

John Ellerton

“The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended;
The darkness falls at thy behest;
To thee our morning hymns ascended;
Thy praise shall hallow now our rest.”

The church through the ages has a heritage of great evening hymns. “O gladsome light” (UM Hymnal, No. 686) comes from an ancient Greek text perhaps older than the fourth century C.E.

Evening offices, or Evensong in the Anglican Church, were times to thank God for the light and blessings of the day and request rest and safety throughout the night. Sleep was seen as a state of being that could be a transition to death.

John Ellerton (1826-1893) was a priest in the Church of England and a significant Victorian hymn writer. His early hymns were for children. In addition, he made contributions as one of the editors of the influential Hymns Ancient and Modern. Ellerton’s hymns were published in two collections, Church Hymns and Tunes (1871) and The London Mission Book (1884).

Our hymn was written for A Liturgy for Missionary Meetings (1870). It was then revised slightly and published the following year in Church Hymns and Tunes under the heading “Their office was to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord, and likewise at even” (I Chronicles. 23:30).

In the 1889 Supplement to the second edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1875), this hymn was associated with Psalm 113:3: “From the rising of the sun until the going down of the same the Lord’s name is to be praised.”

As was the practice at this time, poets often borrowed from one another, especially opening lines. British hymn scholar J.R. Watson notes that the first line of this hymn actually appeared much earlier “as the opening of an undistinguished [and unknown] two-verse poem in Church Poetry (1855).” From this inspiration has come “one of the best known and most loved of all English hymns.”

One of the leading hymn writers of his era, Ellerton has carefully crafted a prayer of thanksgiving for the expansion of the church around the world so that “the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strains of praise away” [stanza 3]. Carlton Young, editor of The UM Hymnal, notes that this hymn “is also an expression of late-nineteenth-century British Victorian military and cultural imperialism that could not have been written in any other time and sung in any other church.”

Erik Routley, eminent 20th-century British hymnologist, observes that this missionary hymn celebrated the expansion of the church as the British Empire also expanded. “‘An empire on which the sun never sets’ is precisely the thought that is here adapted to Christian use. The whole setting is geographical; each verse invites the singer to contemplate the territorial extent of Christendom.”

Routley traces the immense popularity of the hymn to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, which celebrated the many accomplishments of England during the Queen’s reign.

J.R. Watson balances this cultural critique with a more biblical approach. Our hymn “begins with Genesis [1:3-4] and ends with Revelation [5:13]. The genius of the author is in his effective use of the metaphor of the rising and setting sun. This inevitable action of nature not only frames each day as a universal phenomenon, but also frames all of time—from the Creator of light and dark at the initial act of creation in Genesis to the time when all Christendom will stand before the throne singing ‘Blessing, honor, and glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.’”

The final line of the last stanza expresses the promise of Revelation 5:13:

“Thy kingdom stands, and grows forever,
Till all thy creatures own thy sway.”

While definitely a product of its age, this hymn lives on while so many other mission hymns, saturated with blatant militant imperialism, have fallen into disuse. Acknowledging that “earth’s proud empires [will] pass away” [stanza 4], Ellerton’s artistry, metaphorical depth and biblical foundations make this a hymn for any age.

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

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