Behind the Hymn: Abide with Me

Abide with Me is a hymn that deals with comfort and help.  More than ever we live in a time when we need the reminder that Christ is with us and will return again one day.

The hymn was written by a Scotsman, Henry Francis Lyte.

Henry Francis Lyte

Lyte was born in Kelso, Scotland on June 1, 1793.  He was educated at Portora, the Royal School of Enniskillen in Enniskillen, Ireland, and at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where he graduated in 1814. During his tenure at Trinity College, Lyte was awarded the English Prize Poem on three occasions.

Upon finishing college, he planned to study medicine.  However, he took holy orders with the Anglican Church in 1815.  His longest appointment was perpetual curate at Lower Brixham, Devonshire, in 1823, where he served for 24 years.

Henry Francis Lyte

During his ministry, he published several books of poetry.

At the age of 54, Lyte developed tuberculosis.

In a Dictionary of Hymnology {Vol. 1}, Lyte’s daughter, Anna Maria Maxwell Hogg recounts the story of how Abide with Me came into being.

The summer was passing away, and the month of September (that month in which he was once more to quit his native land) arrived, and each day seemed to have a special value as being one day nearer his departure.

His family were surprised and almost alarmed at his announcing his intention of preaching once more to his people. His weakness and the possible danger attending the effort, were urged to prevent it, but in vain. “It was better”, as he used to say often playfully, when in comparative health, “to wear out than to rust out”. He felt that he should be enabled to fulfil his wish, and feared not for the result. His expectation was well founded. He did preach, and amid the breathless attention of his hearers, gave them a sermon on the Holy Communion. . . .

In the evening of the same day he placed in the hands of a near and dear relative the little hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, with an air of his own composing, adapted to the words.

Do you ask God to abide with you?

A week later, on November 20th, 1847 Henry Lyte passed into eternity while on holiday in Nice, France.

Abide with Me is believed to derive from Luke 24:29 where the disciple said to the risen Christ “abide with us.”  Many have remarked the change to the singular pronoun is what gives the hymn its comforting emotional intimacy.

Lyte wrote Abide with me to his own tune, but today it is sung to Eventide, composed in 10 minutes by the organist William Monk, during what his widow recalled as “a time of great sorrow. Hand in hand we were silently watching the glory of the setting sun (our daily habit) until the golden hue had faded… Then he took paper and penciled the tune which has gone all over the world.”

Jesus performed miracles and spent time with the people. He is with us even today.

Abide with Me has remained popular through hardships, such as in the trenches of World War I.  Nurse Edith Cavell sung the song the night before the Germans shot her for helping British soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium.

The song has been played at the royal weddings of the future George VI to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and their daughter Elizabeth to Prince Philip.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001 the Salvation Army band played the song at Ground Zero.

The song has also been featured on several movie soundtracks.

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.”

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