Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Monday, June 04, 2007

Boreham on 'Abide With Me!'

You would scarcely think that this pretty blue bay, with its rocky coast and its graceful sweep of crescent beach, had witnessed anything worth talking about. Yet it was from these rugged cliffs that the men of Devon watched the great galleons of the Spanish Armada as they made their way into the Channel in 1588. It was in this very bay that William of Orange landed with his army exactly a century later and made himself King of England. It was in these quiet waters that the Bellerophon, with Napoleon as a prisoner on board, anchored for several days on her way to St. Helena in 1815. And it was on this secluded beach that one of the very greatest of our hymns was composed. Abide with me was written, on the night on which he closed his ministry, by Canon Henry Francis Lyte, who was for a quarter of a century Vicar of Brixham Parish Church—the church that you see up there on the hill.

Lyre was a cosmopolite. Of English parentage, he was born in Scotland and educated in Ireland. And in Ireland he commenced his ministry. The tiny village of Ednam, near Kelso, not far from the Tweed, holds the extraordinary distinction of having produced three poets of renown—James Thomson, who wrote Rule Britannia; Thomas Campbell, who wrote Ye Mariners of England; and Henry Francis Lyre, who wrote Abide with me.

As a boy, Henry dreamed of being a doctor, and actually became a medical student. But, whilst still in his 'teens, he passed through a profound religious experience which turned his mind in quite another direction. Of that transforming experience he has told us in his hymn, although, perhaps because of its personal character, the verse is never included in any of our collections:

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, 0 Lord, abide with me.

Following upon this experience, he devoted himself to study for the ministry, and, in1815—the year of Waterloo—he settled as curate at Wexford in Ireland. He was then twenty-two.


It was at Wexford that the hymn was really born, although it was not until many years later that it took definite shape. He did not stay long in that first curacy of his; but he made fast friends in the district; and in 1820 he revisited the scene of his first ministry as the guest of the Hore family. Hearing that an old acquaintance, William Augustus Le Hunte, was desperately ill, he hurried off to see him. The dying man had enjoyed a particularly vivid realization of his Lord's presence and grace; but was haunted, during his sickness, by the fear of losing it. He dreaded lest he should be left to tread the dark valley alone. Every now and again he would close his eyes, clasp his hands, and exclaim fervently: 'Oh, abide with me; abide with me; abide with me!' Mr. Le Hunte's fear of being forsaken at the last made an indelible impression on the sensitive mind of the young clergyman sitting by his bedside; and, although he said very little about it, his dying friend's pathetic entreaty echoed in his soul through all the years.

It was in 1823, at the age of thirty, that Mr. Lyte settled at Brixham in Devonshire, the fishing village with the colorful historic associations. He loved the sea; he loved the fisherfolk; and he quickly won the affection of all the people along the coast. Nothing pleased him more than to saunter along the beach, to perch on the side of one of the boats, and to chat with the men as they arranged their nets and tackle. He spent nearly a quarter of a century among them, and, the longer they knew him, the more highly they esteemed him.

He was, however, heavily handicapped. Although he contrived, by frequently wintering abroad, and by keeping in constant touch with his doctors, to live to the age of fifty-four, he was always pitifully frail. A victim of consumption, his lungs were in ruins and had to be incessantly coaxed or scourged into doing their duty.

Looking as if a puff of wind would blow him away, he seemed to be always coughing. Knowing that his day must be a brief one, he wondered in what way he could make it memorable and serviceable. This problem occupied his thought continually. And then he had a brain-wave: an idea suddenly flashed upon him. He fancied that he saw a way in which he could outwit the brevity of life and challenge the tyranny of the tomb.


He had always been passionately fond of expressing himself tunefully. The making of melodious verses fascinated him. Would it be possible, he wondered, to employ this gift of poesy in such a way that his influence would linger on for many years after his fragile body had been laid to rest? The more he thought about it, the more the idea gripped him. He set his daring aspiration to music. Why, he asks, should he shrink from an early death? If only, before dropping into his grave, he could produce something that should live for ages! If, he sings:

If I might leave behind
Some blessing for my fellows, some fair trust,
To guide, to cheer, to elevate my kind
When I am in the dust.

Might verse of mine inspire
One virtuous aim, one high resolve impart,
Light in one drooping soul a hallowed fire
Or bind one broken heart!

O Thou, whose touch can lend
Life to the dead. Thy quickening grace supply
And grant me, swanlike, my last breath to spend
In song that may not die!

The thought, which was at first but a nebulous and abstract dream, crystallized into a definite purpose, an inflexible resolve; and, every day of his life, he prayed that he might be permitted to realize his lofty ambition. And his prayer was magnificently answered.


He applied himself diligently to the writing of devotional verse. As he roamed about those Devonshire cliffs, or sauntered down those Devonshire lanes, or rested in solitude among the rocks and caves along the beach, he allowed his secret thoughts to express themselves in rhythmical and lilting lines. In due course he wrote a few hymns such as Pleasant are Thy Courts above; Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; Jesus, I my cross have taken, and the like. But, while he was grateful to have produced such songs as these, he could nor satisfy himself that he had brought into being that deathless melody of which he had so often dreamed.

And, all the time, the sands in his hour-glass were running out. His brittle health was going from bad to worse. In the autumn of 1847, he had again arranged to leave for the Riviera before the English winter set in. The fourth of September, his last Sunday in Brixham, was Sacrament Sunday. To the consternation and alarm of his friends, he announced his intention of preaching the Communion sermon and of participating in the administration. They pleaded with him, in view of his extreme weakness, to abandon the project, but nothing would turn him from his purpose. He climbed the pulpit stairs, preached a sermon that was talked about long afterwards; administered the Sacraments; and then retired to his study for a time of rest and quiet.

Later in the evening he set out for a solitary stroll along the sands that he knew so well. In the course of that moonlit walk beside the waves, the text on which he had preached in the church took a new form in his fancy. He had read as the lesson the story of the walk to Emmaus; and he had preached from the words: Abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent.

Abide with us! His memory rushed back to the deathbed of his old friend in Ireland: ‘Abide with me: abide with me!’ Whilst still pondering this recollection of past years, he became aware that the moon had hidden herself behind dense clouds and that the light around him was fast failing. Somehow, it all wove itself in his mind into a set of verses:

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Hastening back to his study, he wrote out the stanzas that had swept into his soul as he paced the sands: and handed the paper to a friend. He left England the following week, and died at Nice two months later. A beautiful marble cross marks his grave on that southern shore.


Dame Clara Butt once made a list of the songs that, in the course of her career, she had found most appealing. She had not the slightest hesitation in putting Abide with me first of all. Nothing that she ever sang, she declared, so moved the hearts of her audiences.

In that amazing expedition over slippery glaciers and tossing icefloes of which he has cold in South, Sir Ernest Shackleton confronted perils that he and his companions regarded as absolutely insuperable. But, when death stared them most confidently in the face, they became vividly conscious of the divine presence and protection. The immanence of the Son of Man was as real to them amidst Antarctic snows as it was to the three Hebrew children in the burning fiery furnace. The story, as Shackleton tells it, is one of the most thrilling passages in our literature of travel. When the explorer unfolded it before his great London audiences, his hearers held their breaths: you could have heard a pin drop.

The memory of that unforgettable experience was strongly upon Shackleton when he prepared for his last—and fatal—voyage. It was not his custom to take anything with him with which he could possibly dispense; but he insisted on including among his treasures a gramophone record of Dame Clara Butt's rendering of Abide with me. He wanted to be assured in that melodious way that the invisible Companion of his former expedition would constantly attend him on this one. 'Just think,' commented a journalist at the time, `just think of those words and of that music—I need Thy presence every passing hour—ringing out across the icebound wastes of the Antarctic!' It was Shackleton's one thought and it grew upon him towards the close. As he lay dying, he asked for the record, and listened with strained and reverent attention to the voice of Clara Butt singing:

I need Thy Presence every passing hour;
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me!

Hold Thou Thy Cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Now, whilst Sir Ernest Shackleton was undergoing his sensational experiences in South Georgia and on Elephant Island, Nurse Edith Cavell was awaiting execution in her cheerless prison cell at Brussels. Mr. Gahan, the British Consul, called to take a last farewell of her. He and she repeated, very softly and very slowly, the verses of Abide with me. When at length the moment of parting came, she clasped his hand and said with a lovely smile: `We shall meet again--heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee!' She then turned away, murmuring to herself under her breath—‘in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me!'

Tonight—and every night—at eight o'clock, the bells of Canon Lyte's old church at Brixham peal out the strains of Abide with me for the comfort and inspiration of the men of the fishing fleet as they put to sea. Tonight—and every night—the words find a responsive echo in the wistful hearts of all who hunger for the divine companionship. The hymn assures them that, so long as the world stands, no man need be lonely who will extend the hospitalities of his soul to One who loves to abide with all who court His company.

F W Boreham, ‘Abide With Me!’ A Late Lark Singing (London: The Epworth Press, 1945), 195-200.

Words and Tune: Eventide

Image: Henry Francis Lyte