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Many a man who has labored in obscure places, practically unnoticed and unpraised by his own generation, has achieved a fame after his death that grows in magnitude with the passing years.

When Henry Francis Lyte died in 1847, he was little known beyond his humble seashore parish at Lower Brixham, England; but today, wherever his beautiful hymns are sung throughout the Christian world, he is gratefully remembered as the man who wrote “Abide with me.”

In response to a questionnaire sent to American readers recently by “The Etude,” a musical magazine, 7,500 out of nearly 32,000 persons who replied named “Abide with me” as their favorite hymn. It easily took first rank, displacing such older favorites as “Rock of Ages” and “Jesus, Lover of my soul.”

How often we have sung this hymn at the close of an evening service, and a settled peace has come into our hearts as we have realized the nearness of Him who said, “And lo! I am with you always.” Yet, this is not in reality an evening hymn. Its theme is the evening of life, and it was written when Lyte felt the shadows of death gathering about his own head. We catch his meaning in the second stanza:

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.

Lyte was always frail in health. He was born in Scotland, 292 June 1, 1793, and was early left an orphan. Nevertheless, despite the handicap of poverty, he struggled through college, and on three occasions won prizes with poems.

His first ambition was to become a physician, but during his college days he determined to enter the ministry. The death of a young friend, a brother clergyman, brought about a profound change in the spiritual life of Lyte. Called to the bedside of his friend to give him consolation, he discovered to his sorrow that both he and the dying man were blind guides who were still groping for light. Through a prayerful search of the Scriptures, however, they both came to a firm faith in Christ. Lyte wrote of his friend:

“He died happy under the belief that though he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his delinquencies, and that he was forgiven and accepted for His sake.”

Concerning the change that came into his own life, he added: “I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”

For nearly twenty-five years after this incident Lyte labored among humble fisherfolk and sailors of the parish at Lower Brixham, and his deep spiritual zeal and fervor led him to overtax his physical powers. From time to time he was obliged to spend the winters in more friendly climes.

In the autumn of 1847 he wrote to a friend that the swallows were flying southward, and he observed, “They are inviting me to accompany them; and yet alas; while I am talking of flying, I am just able to crawl.”

The Sunday for his farewell service came. His family and friends admonished him not to preach a sermon, but the 293 conscientious minister insisted. “It is better,” he said, “to wear out than to rust out.”

He did preach, and the hearts of his hearers were full that day, for they seemed to realize that it would probably be the last time they would hear him. The faithful pastor, too, seemed to have a premonition that it would be his last sermon. The service closed with the Lord’s Supper, administered by Lyte to his sorrowing flock.

“Though necessarily much exhausted by the exertion and excitement of this effort,” his daughter afterward wrote, “yet his friends had no reason to believe that it had been hurtful to him.”

This was September 4, 1847. That afternoon he walked out along the shore to watch the sun as it was setting in a glory of crimson and gold. It was a peaceful, beautiful Sabbath evening. Returning to his home, he shut himself up in his study for the brief space of an hour, and when he came out, he handed a near relative the manuscript containing the famous hymn, “Abide with me.” He also had composed a tune of his own for the words, but this never came into general use.

During the following week Lyte left his beloved England for Italy. However, he got no farther than Nice, in France, where he was obliged to discontinue his journey. Here he passed away November 20 of the same year. His last words were, “Joy! Peace!” and then he fell asleep.

A little cross marks his grave in the English cemetery at Nice, for he was buried there. Every year hundreds of pilgrims visit his grave and tell touching stories of how Lyte’s hymn brought them to faith in Christ Jesus.

It was Lyte’s life-long wish that he might leave behind 294 him such a hymn as this. In an earlier poem he had voiced the longing that he might write

Some simple strain, some spirit-moving lay,

Some sparklet 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!

Lyte’s prayer was fulfilled. As long as men shall worship the crucified and risen Lord, so long will they continue to sing the sad and beautiful words of Lyte’s swan song.

In Lyte we have a hymn-writer of the first rank. Indeed, he is comparable to any of England’s greatest hymnists, not excepting Watts or Wesley. His hymns are real lyrics, Scriptural in language, rich in imagery, and exalted in poetic conception. “In no other author,” says an eminent authority, “is poetry and religion more exquisitely united.”

Aside from the sublime hymn we have mentioned, Lyte has given to the Church such noble lyrics as “Jesus, I my cross have taken,” “Pleasant are Thy courts above,” “Praise, my soul, the King of heaven,” “God of mercy, God of grace,” “My spirit on Thy care,” “As pants the hart for cooling streams,” and “O that the Lord’s salvation.” The latter hymn is one of the few ever written that voice a prayer for the salvation of Israel.

The poetic rapture to which Lyte’s poetry sometimes rises is most beautifully reflected in his hymn of adoration:


Praise, my soul, the King of heaven;

To His feet thy tribute bring;

Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,

Who like thee His praise should sing?

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Praise the everlasting King!

Praise Him for His grace and favor

To our fathers in distress;

Praise Him, still the same as ever,

Slow to chide, and swift to bless:

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Glorious in His faithfulness!

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