In our Christian culture, with its emphasis on glitz and noise, it is important to look back at times on some of the great hymns that have come to us down through the ages. Some of the greatest hymns of history were written in the most unlikely of circumstances. Consider the most famous of all, Amazing Grace. Its author, John Newton, would later be a mentor to William Wilberforce in his fight against the evil of slavery. But in 1779, when this hymn was written, Newton was a slave trader and wrote Amazing Grace while waiting in a port for a shipment of slaves.
Another famous hymn, Abide with Me, was written by H.F. Lyte when he was suffering from severe ill-health. Mark Sayers recounts the story of the writing of this hymn in his recent book, The Vertical Self. Sayers says,
on September 4, 1847, the Reverend H.F. Lyte preached his last sermon. Suffering from ill-health, he would be dead before the year was out. He left his chapel, which was filled mostly with fishermen, went back to his home, and wrote the classic hymn, Abide with Me…When you consider that ministers like Reverend Lyte feared that the intellectual foundations of their faith were collapsing around them, the hymn takes on a different tone. It is a plea for God to stay with humanity, because religion seemed to be leaving Western culture.
Probably the most inspirational story of a hymn being written in unlikely circumstances is that of Horatio Spafford when he wrote It is Well with My Soul. Spafford wrote this hymn in the context of losing almost everything he owned in a fire, followed by his 4 year old son to Scarlet fever, and then shortly after, his 4 daughters in a tragedy at sea. The clip below tells the story in moving detail of Spafford’s extraordinary faith in a God who is close to the broken hearted and who provides hope for those who have none.
Next time you sing these hymns, remember the stories behind them. They are not just boring old songs of a bygone era. They tell a rich history of the work of a God of grace and restoration in the lives of ordinary people like you and me.