A FEW days ago I had an email which made me realise how powerful our much-loved hymns can be even today, and although I repeated this one not long ago, I hope you will enjoy it again in this context.
The email was from a professional pianist called Tim Valentine. This is part of what he wrote:
‘You will need some patience to hear this through, but I feel in my heart that I must share this with you. I’m a piano player who, amidst other venues, busks on the streets, with a real piano, adapted to be mobile, with an umbrella, lights and built-in amplification, all working off 12 volt batteries.
‘I was playing on Cornmarket Street, Oxford, quite late in the evening, some time back, and the street was relatively quiet. A family of four slowly came towards me, Mum and Dad with their youngsters, a boy and girl. As they got close, I said to the children, “What would you like me to play for you?” The two children looked at their father, with knowing smiles, and the father said, “He won’t know what you would like to hear.” “Try me,” I blurted out. He spoke almost apologetically, yet sincerely, “The children would like to hear a song called O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.”
‘I went straight into it, and as happens almost every day, to at least one person, when out on the streets, tears welled up and began to flow, and to hear the whole family sing all four verses, with a little help, amidst the sobs and smiles, was just something only God can arrange, that this servant of His shall never forget!
‘After we’d finished, I asked them if they knew the story behind the writing of the hymn, to which they gave a negative reply, so I informed them and explained why there are such phrases as, ‘O light that followest all my way’ and ‘I yield my flickering torch to Thee’ and ‘My heart restores its borrowed ray’ and ‘that in Thy sunshine blaze its day May brighter fairer be’.
‘The parents were so grateful and the Mum said, “We sIng that hymn around the breakfast table every morning, before we separate for the day and the children go to school, and it will mean so much more to us now,” and there was a tear in my eye as we all hugged each other and prayed in the street together, thanking God for His merciful dealings with us and the joy of meeting together like this, as complete strangers, yet united in Christ, all this while we were still embraced in the street.
‘It was an encounter the Spirit of God arranged, Hallelujah! But there’s more. About a year later, I was in the very same street again, slightly further down, and this time it was packed with people. I was playing the same hymn, recalling that encounter of a year ago, when this guy stopped by the piano, broke down in tears and sank to his knees in the street.
‘At the end of the verse, I stopped, and said to him, “Are you ok?” “Yes”, he said, “Keep playing, this is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life, what is it you are playing?” “It’s a hymn,” I said, getting back into it, “it’s got the anointing of God on it and it’s called O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go.” After I finished playing it and he’d pulled himself together, I told him the whole story of what happened with that family and explained its history.
‘If that wasn’t sufficient, the next time I went to the same street, which was about 4 months later and a bit further down, I was playing that hymn again, when this black guy came from behind me, carried on walking for a few yards, stopped, slowly turned round and edged back up the street and stood right in front of the piano, head bowed.
‘While I was still playing, I asked him if he knew it, but he told me he didn’t. I proceeded to tell him about what happened with that guy about 4 months earlier, how he broke down in front of the piano with all those people around, and he said, “That’s just exactly the way I feel.”
‘The amazing thing is this, I play that hymn almost every time I’m on the streets, but it’s only in Cornmarket Street, alone, that I’ve witnessed that type of response. For who has known the mind of the Lord?’
If ever a work resulted from divine inspiration, it is the hymn O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, requested by TCW reader ‘Starshiptrooper’.
It was written by George Matheson, a Church of Scotland minister, and by his own account it took five minutes and ‘came like a dayspring from on high’.
Matheson was born in Glasgow in 1842, the second eldest of eight children of a merchant and his wife, a talented amateur musician. His sight started to fail in early childhood but his elder sister Jane taught him to read and later he dictated his school essays to her. He excelled academically and went to Glasgow University to study classics, logic and philosophy. His younger sisters Margaret and Ellen learned Hebrew, Latin and Greek so that they could read to him and help his studies.
He graduated with first class honours when he was only 19 but by this time he was almost completely blind. He had fallen in love with a fellow student and they became engaged, but she broke it off, saying she could not face life with a blind man.
Matheson began his ministry in 1868 at Innellan, on the Argyll coast near Dunoon. His sister Jane continued to help him, and was a great support and companion. Matheson wrote a number of successful books on spiritual matters, and Queen Victoria invited him to preach at Balmoral. She arranged for the sermon, on the patience of Job, to be published.
When Matheson was 40, his younger sister Margaret married.
Later he recorded: ‘My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering.
‘The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction.
‘I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.’
While he never specified the cause of ‘the most severe mental suffering’ it is reasonable to speculate that the wedding would have prompted him to think of the fiancée who deserted him and what might have been.
These are the words he wrote:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I climb the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
In fact there was one subsequent change to the words. The Hymnal Committee of the Church of Scotland asked him to change ‘I climb the rainbow’ in the third verse to ‘I trace’.
In 1886 Matheson became minister of St Bernard’s Parish Church in Edinburgh, which at that time had one of the largest congregations in Scotland, and his renown continued to spread. He never married, and shared a home with his devoted sister Jane. He died soon after a stroke in 1906 at the age of 64 and is buried in the Glasgow Necropolis.
Fittingly, the melody by Albert L. Peace (1844-1912) was also written very quickly. Peace was born in Huddersfield and was a child prodigy, becoming organist at the parish church in nearby Holmfirth when he was only nine. He gained a degree in music at Oxford and was organist at Glasgow Cathedral from 1879 to 1897. The Scottish Hymnal Committee invited him to set Matheson’s words to music and he carried the verses with him, ready for inspiration to strike. He was sitting on a beach on the Isle of Arran reading the words when the melody came into his mind. He said later that ‘the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune’. He called it St Margaret, after a queen of Scotland who was a benefactress to the church. Peace later became organist at St. George’s Hall in Liverpool, then regarded as the premier post in organ playing.
Matheson always modestly attributed the popularity of his hymn to the music written for it by Peace.
I had difficulty finding a decent recording of it so I turned to this one, posted on YouTube by someone who evidently had the same problem.
There is also this one by Kenneth McKellar, the Scottish tenor indelibly associated with the BBC TV Hogmanay celebrations in the 1960s and 70s.
(Many may remember that McKellar performed Britain’s 1965 Eurovision Song Contest entry, A Man Without Love. Apparently the Luxembourg audience gasped when he appeared on stage in full Scottish regalia including a kilt. The song was placed ninth out of 18 but did gain the distinction of being one of only two occasions in Eurovision history when the Irish jury gave the UK song top marks.)
An arrangement of O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go by the tenor singer David Phelps seems to be popular. It is not to my taste, but I include it for the sake of completeness, in a rehearsal performance by the Gaither Vocal Band, of which Phelps is an intermittent member. He is the one in the check shirt.
Lastly, here is a delightful performance of another setting, published in 2002 by artist Christopher Miner, from three talented sisters called Lanie, Natalie and Carrie Clauson. Do stick with it till the end.