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In the glorious hymns of Reginald Heber, missionary bishop to India, we find not only the noblest expression of the missionary fervor which in his day was stirring the Church, but also the purest poetry in English hymnody. Christians of all ages will gratefully remember the name of the man who wrote the most stirring of all missionary hymns, “From Greenland’s icy mountains,” as well as that sublime hymn of adoration, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!”

The latter was regarded by Alfred Tennyson as the world’s greatest hymn.

Born April 21, 1783, at Malpas, Cheshire, England, Heber was educated at Oxford, where he formed the friendship of Sir Walter Scott. His gift for writing poetry revealed itself in this period of his life, when he won a prize for a remarkable poem on Palestine. It is said that Heber, who was only seventeen years old at the time, read the poem to Scott at the breakfast table, and that the latter suggested one of the most striking lines.

Following the award of the prize, for which young Heber had been earnestly striving, his parents found him on his knees in grateful prayer.

For sixteen years Heber served in the obscure parish of Hodnet as a minister of the Church of England. It was during this period that all of his hymns were written. He was also engaged in other literary activities that brought 270 him some fame. All this while, however, he nourished a secret longing to go to India. It is said that he would work out imaginary journeys on the map, while he hoped that some day he might become bishop of Calcutta.

His missionary fervor at this time is also reflected in the famous hymn, “From Greenland’s icy mountains,” written in 1819. The allusions to “India’s coral strand” and “Ceylon’s isle” are an indication of the longings that were running through his mind.

His earnest prayer was answered in 1822, when at the age of forty years he was called to the episcopate as bishop of Calcutta. After three years of arduous work in India, the life of the gifted bishop was cut short. During this period he ordained the first native pastor of the Episcopal Church—Christian David.

A man of rare refinement and noble Christian personality, Heber was greatly beloved by all who knew him. “One of the best of English gentlemen,” was the tribute accorded him by Thackeray. It was not until after his death, however, that he leaped into fame through his hymns.

The story of how “From Greenland’s icy mountains” was written reveals something of the poetic genius of Heber. It seems that he was visiting with his father-in-law, Dr. Shipley, vicar and dean of Wrexham, on the Saturday before Whitsunday, 1819. The dean, who was planning to preach a missionary sermon the following morning, asked young Heber to write a missionary hymn that could be sung at the service. The latter immediately withdrew from the circle of friends to another part of the room. After a while the dean asked, “What have you written?” Heber replied by reading the first three stanzas of the hymn. The dean expressed satisfaction, but the poet replied, “No, no, 271 the sense is not complete.” And so he added the fourth verse—“Waft, waft, ye winds, His story”—and the greatest missionary hymn of the ages had been born.

The story of the tune to which the hymn is sung is equally interesting. A Christian woman in Savannah, Georgia, had come into possession of a copy of Heber’s words. The meter was unusual, and she was unable to find music to fit the words. Learning of a young bank clerk who was said to be gifted as a composer, she sent the poem to him. Within a half hour it was returned to her with the beautiful tune, “Missionary Hymn,” to which it is now universally sung. The young bank clerk was none other than Lowell Mason, who afterwards achieved fame as one of America’s greatest hymn-tune composers. The marvel is that both words and music were written almost in a moment—by real inspiration, it would seem.

Bishop Heber’s hymns are characterized chiefly by their lyrical quality. They are unusually rich in imagery. This may be seen particularly in his beautiful Epiphany hymn, “Brightest and best of the sons of the morning.” In some respects the hymns of Heber resemble the later lyrics of Henry Francis Lyte, writer of “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.” They ring, however, with a much more joyous note than the hymns of Lyte, in which are always heard strains of sadness.

We have already referred to Tennyson’s estimate of Heber’s hymn to the Holy Trinity. It should be observed that this great hymn is one of pure adoration. There is nothing of the element of confession, petition or thanksgiving in it, but only worship. Its exalted language is Scriptural throughout, indeed it is the Word of the Most High. It is doubtful if there is a nobler hymn of its kind in all the realm 272 of hymnody. The tune to which it is always sung, “Nicaea,” was written by the great English composer, Rev. John B. Dykes, and is comparable to the hymn itself in majesty.

Other fine hymns by Heber include “The Son of God goes forth to war,” “God that madest earth and heaven,” “O Thou, whose infant feet were found,” “When through the torn sail,” “Bread of the world in mercy broken,” and “By cool Siloam’s shady rill.”

Altogether Heber wrote fifty-seven hymns, all of which were published in a single collection after his death. It is said that every one of them is still in use, a rare tribute to the genius of this consecrated writer.

Heber’s life was closely paralleled in many respects by another great hymn-writer who lived in the same period. His name was Sir Robert Grant. He was born two years later than the gifted missionary bishop and, like Heber, died in India. Although he did not enter the service of the Church but engaged in secular pursuits, he was a deeply spiritual man and his hymns bear testimony of an earnest, confiding faith in Christ. Between his hymns and those of Heber there is a striking similarity. The language is chaste and exalted. The rhythm is faultless. The lines are chiseled as perfectly as a cameo. The imagery is almost startling in its grandeur. Take, for example, a stanza from his magnificent hymn, “O worship the King”:

O tell of His might, and sing of His grace,

Whose robe is the light, whose canopy space;

His chariots of wrath the deep thunder-clouds form,

And dark is His path on the wings of the storm.

There is something beautifully tender in that other hymn of Grant’s in which he reveals childlike trust in Christ:


When gathering clouds around I view,

And days are dark, and friends are few,

On Him I lean, who, not in vain,

Experienced every human pain;

He sees my wants, allays my fears,

And counts and treasures up my tears.

Nor would we forget his other famous hymn, “Saviour, when in dust to Thee,” based on the Litany. When we learn that the man who wrote these hymns was never engaged in religious pursuits, but that his whole life was crowded with arduous tasks and great responsibilities in filling high government positions, we have reason to marvel.

Sir Robert Grant was born in the county of Inverness, Scotland, in 1785. His father was a member of Parliament and a director of the East India Company. The son also was trained for political life, and, after graduating from Cambridge University in 1806, he began the practice of law. In 1826 he was elected to Parliament, five years later became privy counselor, and in 1834 he was named governor of Bombay. He died at Dapoorie, in western India, in 1838.

While a member of Parliament, Sir Robert introduced a bill to remove the restrictions imposed upon the Jews. The historian Macaulay made his maiden speech in Parliament in support of this measure.

Brief mention should also be made here of another of Bishop Heber’s contemporaries who gained undying fame by a great hymn. He was John Marriott, a minister of the Church of England, whose missionary hymn, “Thou, whose almighty word,” is ranked among the finest in the English language. Marriott was born in 1780, three years before Heber’s birth, and he died in 1825, a year before the death of the famous missionary bishop.

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