For All The Saints


I’VE been saving this terrific hymn for All Saints Day, November 1, when it is traditionally sung, and this year it falls on Sunday. It celebrates all the saints, known and unknown.

The words were written by William Walsham How (1823-1897), known asWalsham How. The son of a Shrewsbury solicitor, he went to Shrewsbury School and Wadham College, Oxford. He was ordained in 1846, and worked at various churches in Shropshire before becoming Rector of Whittington in the north-west of the county in 1851. He stayed there for 28 years, and this is where he wrote For All the Saints as a processional hymn. It was published in Hymns for Saints’ Days, and Other Hymns in 1864. Here are the words:

1 For all the saints who from their labours rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

2 Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;
thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

3 O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

4 O blest communion, fellowship divine,
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

5 And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

6 The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warrior cometh rest;
sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

7 But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on his way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

8 From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

In all he wrote 54 hymns which were collected in with other secular and sacred writings in Poems and Hymns, 1886. He was also a scholar of natural history and biology. 

Despite his relatively lowly position as a country parish priest, How was well known in the church for his energy and success in re-invigorating it. He refused preferment several times but was prevailed upon in 1879 to become a suffragan bishop (a sort of junior bishop) in East London, going under the title of Bishop of Bedford. He was drawn to the capital through his conviction that there was work to be done among the deprived people of the East End. He worked tirelessly to raise funds for his poverty-stricken parishes by holding public meetings in the West End and the richer towns of southern England.

The London Hospital lay within one of his parishes, and he was associated with its work. At the time it was home to Joseph Merrick, known (unkindly) as the Elephant Man. When Merrick expressed an interest in being confirmed in the Church of England, the hospital chaplain approached Bishop How, who duly conducted a private ceremony in the hospital chapel.

In 1888 he was made the first Bishop of Wakefield, where he carried out valuable work among poor factory workers. In 1897, during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, there was something of a crisis when Sir Arthur Sullivan declined to set to music the words written by the Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin, as a Jubilee Hymn, saying they were unworthy of his music. Victoria’s son Prince Albert asked Bishop How to step into the breach, and he composed some words which Sullivan found acceptable. The Jubilee Hymn was intended to be sung in churches at home and across the Empire. It was published in a pamphlet for the occasion, ‘to be used in all Churches and Chapels in England and Wales, and in the Town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, upon Sunday the Twentieth day of June, 1897’ (Berwick, on the border between England and Scotland, was technically in neither country at that time). Annoyingly I can find only the title, O King of Kings, and these lines:

Thou has been mindful of Thine Own,
And lo! we come confessing –
’Tis Thou has dowered our queenly throne
With sixty years of blessing.

Here is a performance of it.

Alfred Austin’s offering was published as a poem.

Seven weeks after the Jubilee celebrations Bishop How died on holiday in western Ireland. His body was brought home for burial to the Shropshire village of Whittington where he had been rector. A wreath was sent by Queen Victoria bearing a card with the handwritten message: ‘A mark of truest esteem and sincerest regard from Victoria RI’. His grave was marked by a simple stone slab.

There is also a memorial plaque to him in the City of London church of St Helen’s, Bishopsgate, bearing the line ‘Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest’ from For All the Saints.

The hymn was originally sung to the melody Sarum, by the Victorian composer Joseph Barnby, which you can hear here.

A new setting was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams for the 1906 English Hymnal. It is called Sine Nomine (‘without name’). I have often felt that Vaughan Williams took a rather superior attitude to Victorian hymn tunes but Sine Nomine is brilliantly robust and memorable.

Here it is sung by the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral.

This is by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band.

This is different – is it an accordion?

This is a contemporary version by Fernando Ortega.

Finally, I believe this delightful performance is by a choir and orchestra in the Philippines.

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