Hymn Stories: Abide With Me
"Abide with Me" is one of the best-loved English hymns of the past 150 years. We see this both in its enduring usage in churches today and in its ongoing appearances in modern culture (for example, in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics).
What about the hymn has made it so well loved?
“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.” Some have cited Henry Francis Lyte’s poem as the quintessential Victorian hymn. It appears in virtually every hymn book in the English language.
Henry Francis Lyte was born in the year 1793, and was left as an orphan very young. Despite his poverty, he managed to attend college, winning awards for his poetry. He had originally thought to become a physician but was called to the ministry during his college days. The death of one of his friends brought about a profound change in him as he was called to his bedside to offer solace and comfort. There, he discovered that both he and his dying friend had little to offer by way of consolation. Through prayerful search of the scriptures, they both came to a firmer faith in Christ as stated later by Lyte: “I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issues with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”
He became the vicar of a fishing village in Devonshire, England at an elegant estate named Berry Head. Its coastal views were among the most beautiful on the British Isles. Henry laid out walking trails throughout the estate and wrote most of his sermons, hymns, and poetry while taking these walks.
He had long suffered from a lung disorder that turned into tuberculosis. At the age of 54, he preached his last sermon with difficulty and planned a therapeutic holiday in Italy saying, “I must put everything in order before I leave, because I have no idea how long I will be away.” Before leaving, he took a long walk along the coast in prayer then retired to his room. An hour later he emerged with a written copy of “Abide with Me.” Some say he wrote the poem in that hour, others say he discovered it in the bottom of his desk as he packed for Italy. It is likely that, finding sketches of a poem he had previously started, he revised and completed it that evening.
Shortly after this he departed for Italy, and on his travels again revised the hymn (it was apparently on his mind) and posted it to his wife. He checked into a hotel in Nice on the French Riviera before his lungs gave out and he passed away. Another clergyman who happened to be staying in the same hotel, and attended him during his final hours, stated that Henry’s last words were, “Peace! Joy!”
A memorial service was held in Brixham and it was on this occasion that “Abide With Me” was first sung. A little cross marks his grave in the English cemetery at Nice where he is buried and many visit his grave telling stories of how the hymn had brought them to faith. It was Lyte’s wish to write a hymn like this as stated in an earlier poem:
“Some simple straw, some spirit-moving lay, some sparkles of the soul that still might live when I was passed to clay… O thou! Whose touch can lend life to the dead, thy quick’ning grace supply, and grant me, swanlike, my last breath to spend in song that may not die!”
According to some sources, Lyte had written a tune of his own for the text but it never came into use. William H. Monk who was attending a hymnal committee meeting saw Lyte’s text and realising it did not have a tune, sat down at the piano and composed “Eventide” in ten minutes. The tune has been associated with “Abide with Me” to this day.
The hymn is based on Luke 24:29, part of a post-Resurrection narrative telling the story of Emmaus: “But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. And he went in to tarry with them.” Hymnologist J.R. Watson notes, “Lyte’s genius takes the quotation and turns it into a metaphor for human life in all of its brevity. At the same time, by changing ‘Abide with us’ into ‘Abide with me,’ he deepens the feeling by making it speak to the individual, in prayer or meditation.” It is perhaps the personal intensity of the text, the use of the metaphor of evening and the closing line, “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me,” that makes this hymn a favourite at funerals. Of the original eight stanzas, The United Methodist Hymnal uses five. The second stanza reflects much of the Victorian spirit: “Swift from my grasp ebbs out life’s little day, Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away, Change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me.” A focus on death and the corresponding transience of life is characteristic of Victorian hymns. The text to “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide” first appeared in the famous Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861), but it may be the hymn tune EVENTIDE by William Henry Monk, the musical editor of the hymnal, that has assured its continual use.
Not many hymns have dramatic stories behind them. This one is not all that dramatic; but knowing that it was written by a man who was very near death at a relatively young age helps us feel its weight and sobriety all the more.