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The most recent of English hymn-writers to gain recognition in the standard hymn-books of the Church is George Matheson. The fame of this man will probably rest on a single hymn, “O Love that wilt not let me go,” written on a summer evening in 1882.

A deeper appreciation and understanding will be felt for this hymn when we know that it is truly a “song in the night,” for Matheson was blind when he wrote it.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, March 27, 1842, Matheson enjoyed partial vision as a boy. However, after he entered Glasgow University at the age of fifteen, his sight began to fail and he became totally blind. Nevertheless, in spite of this handicap, he was a brilliant scholar and graduated with honor in 1861. Having decided to enter the ministry, he remained four additional years for theological studies.

It was while he was parish minister at Innellan, a seaport summer resort in Scotland, that the famous hymn was written. He tells the story in his own words:

“It was written in the manse of my former parish (Innellan) one summer evening in 1882. It was composed with extreme rapidity; it seemed to me that its construction occupied only a few minutes, and I felt myself rather in the position of one who was being dictated to than an original artist. I was suffering from extreme mental distress, and the hymn was the fruit of pain.”


Many conjectures have been made regarding the cause of the “mental distress” from which the author was suffering. Because of the opening line, “O Love that wilt not let me go,” it has been suggested that Matheson had been bitterly disappointed in his hopes of marrying a young woman to whom he had become deeply attached. It is said that her refusal to marry him was due to his blindness.

Although this story cannot be vouched for, there are many significant hints in the hymn to his sad affliction, such as the “flickering torch” and the “borrowed ray” in the second stanza, the beautiful thought of tracing “the rainbow through the rain” in the third stanza, and the “cross” referred to in the final stanza. The hymn is so artistically constructed and is so rich in poetic thought and symbolic meaning, it will well repay careful study.

Despite his handicap, Dr. Matheson was blessed with a fruitful ministry. A devoted sister who had learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew in order to aid him in his theological studies remained his co-worker and helper throughout life. In all of his pastoral calls she was his constant guide.

During the early part of his ministry, he wrote all his sermons in full. He possessed such a remarkable memory that after a sermon had been read to him twice, he was able to repeat it perfectly. After he had followed this practice for twelve years, he suffered a complete collapse of memory one Sunday in the midst of a sermon. Unable to proceed, he calmly announced a hymn and sat down. At the conclusion of the singing he told the congregation what had happened, and then preached a sermon of great appeal from another text.

After a ministry at Innellan lasting for eighteen years, he was called as pastor of St. Bernard’s church in Edinburgh. 343 Here he remained for thirteen years, attracting large multitudes by his preaching.

The later years of his life were spent in literary work. He was the author of several volumes in prose, among them a very fine devotional book called “Moments on the Mount.” He fell asleep August 28, 1906, to await the break of eternity’s dawn, confident in the assurance that

... the promise is not vain

That morn shall tearless be.

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