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Horatius Bonar, 1808-1889

by Norman Mable

Horatius BonarI heard the voice of Jesus say.
When the weary, seeking rest

Dr. Horatius Bonar wrote so many famous hymns that it is difficult to decide which is the most popular. Probably I heard the voice of Jesus say takes the first place, closely followed by When the weary, seeking rest. Others much beloved are, A few more years shall roll; Thy way, not mine, O Lord; O Love of God, how strong and true; and Go, labour on; spend and be spent.

Based on John 1:16, 'Of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace', I heard the voice of Jesus say first appeared under the title, The Voice from Galilee, in 'Hymns of Faith and Hope', first series, 1857, but was probably written some years previously. The original manuscript is a curious document, for some of the words are written in a kind of shorthand, and little sketches are drawn all over the margin of the page, evidently made while the writer was thinking out the lines of his hymn.

When the weary, seeking rest is modelled on the pattern of Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple (I Kings, 8:23-30), and was conceived in this way. Dr. Bonar was asked to supply words to a tune composed by Dr. W. H. Callcott, which concludes with a strain of Mendelssohn's. This passage reminded him of the reiterated phrase in Solomon's prayer; so he fashioned each verse to end with the following lines:

Hear then, in love, O Lord, the cry,
In heaven, Thy dwelling-place on high,

(Incidentally, Dr. Callcott was a well-known organist and composer, who performed the extraordinary feat of setting to music the multiplication table).

Dr. Bonar was born in 1808 at Edinburgh, and was educated first at the High School (one of his contemporaries there afterwards becoming the famous Archbishop Tait), and then at Edinburgh University, where he was fortunate enough to have as theological instructor, Dr. Thomas Chalmers, the celebrated divine, and one of the most potent Scottish personalities of the nineteenth century.

In 1837 Bonar was ordained as minister of the Church of Scotland at Kelso; and there commenced a life-long ministry of devotion and enthusiasm which continued over a period of fifty years. It was said of him that he was always visiting, always preaching, always writing and always praying. A young servant in his house owed her conversion to his frequent praying often in the privacy of his study for she said to herself, 'If he needs to pray so much, what will become of me if I do not pray?'

For nearly thirty years Dr. Bonar remained at Kelso. While there he seceded from the Church of Scotland at the time of the Disruption in 1843, and followed his old teacher in the establishment of the Free Church. In 1866 he became pastor of Dr. Chalmers' church, the Grange in Edinburgh, continuing his ministry there until his death in 1889.

Dr. Bonar's literary output was very large, and many of his works have had great circulation, several editions being issued of such books as, 'The Night of Weeping; or, Words for the suffering Family of God', and its sequel, 'The Morning of Joy'. Duffield in his 'English Hymns' says of Bonar's two little books, 'God's Way of Peace' and 'God's Way of Holiness', that they 'would relieve many a troubled Christian if he would turn to them in preference to abstract theology.

But it is as a hymn-writer that Dr. Bonar is now principally known. Strangely enough, his hymns for many years were used by nearly every denomination but his own; for the Free Church of Scotland was at that time rigidly opposed to the singing at worship of anything but Metrical Psalms and paraphrases.

Just when and where his hymns were written is difficult to ascertain, as their author was very sensitive to any reference to his share in their production. But it is known that one of his earliest, I lay my sins on Jesus, was written for his Sunday School, when he was assistant to the minister of South Leith. He called this, 'The Substitute', and it was published in the 'Bible Hymn-book' of 1844.

A few more years shall roll was sung for the first time at St. James' Church, Leith, on New Year's Day, 1843, only a few months before the writer left the Established Church to become minister of the Free Church.

Like Whittier, Dr. John Mason Neale, and maybe many another hymnist, Dr. Bonar had no knowledge of music; from which fact it is evident that such knowledge is not a prerequisite for the writing of singable hymns, a distinctive characteristic of those of Dr. Bonar.

At a memorial service held at the Grange Church, the Rev. R. H. Lundie, an intimate friend of Dr. Bonar, said: 'His hymns were written in very varied circumstances, sometimes timed by the tinkling brook that babbled near him; sometimes attuned to the ordered tramp of the ocean, whose crested waves broke on the beach by which he wandered; sometimes set to the rude music of the railway train that hurried him to the scene of duty; sometimes measured by the silent rhythm of the midnight stars that shone above him.' In such odd times and occasions were born some of the best beloved of our hymns.

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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