Forty Days and Forty Nights


WE are now in Lent, when Christians commemorate the time Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. He ate nothing for 40 days and 40 nights and had to resist the devil’s temptations.

The words of this hymn were written by George Hunt Smyttan (1822-1870). He was born in Bombay, where his father was head of the district medical board. He studied at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, and was ordained in 1848. He was briefly curate of Ellington, near Alnwick, Northumberland; then rector of Hawksworth near Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire from 1850 until ill-health forced to him resign in 1859. Among his writings were Thoughts in Verse for the Afflicted (1849) and Mission Songs and Ballads (1860).

Forty Days and Forty Nights was first published in the Penny Post religious magazine in March 1856 with the title Poetry for Lent: As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. It was altered by Francis Pott and printed in his Hymns Fitted to the Order of Common Prayer (1861). Thse are the words as they appear in the hymn book:

Forty days and forty nights
Thou wast fasting in the wild;
Forty days and forty nights
Tempted, and yet undefiled.

Should not we thy sorrow share
And from worldly joys abstain;
fasting with unceasing prayer,
Strong with thee to suffer pain?

Then if Satan on us press,
Jesus, Saviour, hear our call!
Victor in the wilderness,
Grant we may not faint nor fall!

So shall we have peace divine:
Holier gladness ours shall be;
Round us, too, shall angels shine,
such as ministered to thee.

Keep, oh keep us, Saviour dear,
Ever constant by thy side;
That with thee we may appear
At the eternal Eastertide.

Details on Smyttan are sparse. He did marry, but he was travelling alone in Germany when he died suddenly in Frankfurt. I found this account by the Rev G W Mackenzie, chaplain at Frankfurt, dated April 16, 1902:

‘He was buried, not in Frankfort great cemetery, but in a newer one on the other side of the river Main. Having died suddenly, and being entirely unknown here, no relatives being with him, and there being no possibility of communicating with them, he was entered simply as Smyttan, England, and buried amongst the poor in an unpurchased grave [a pauper’s grave]. I stood before the spot to-day, but all record of him has disappeared. Another cross covers it to the memory of one who died about twenty-five years afterwards, and who is buried above Mr Smyttan. I was informed that in (I think) sixty years hence, all traces of the various occupants will be entirely cleared away. My informant knew nothing about the cross, if any, which covered Mr Smyttan’s remains. He thought that if there were one it would have been utilised for someone else.’

The suitably sombre tune is called Heinlein, or Aus der Tiefe (Out of the deep) from the hymn to which it was originally paired. It is attributed to a German Lutheran priest called Martin Herbst (1654-1681) and first appeared in a Nuremberg publication of 1676 with the initials M H. Herbst was pastor of St Andreas church in Eisleben. This was Martin Luther’s home town and he preached his last sermons at St Andreas. Herbst died in the town at the age of 27 from plague.

There are not all that many recordings of this hymn on YouTube. I chose this one by the choir of Portsmouth Cathedral:

and this appealing guitar performance by choir director Chris Brunelle.

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