Hymns History

We Three Kings
Originally entitled Three Kings of Orient, was written by John Henry Hopkins Jr
in 1857.
His family was well known in Richard II’s time in the 14th century. Later, in the
17th century, Isaac Hopkins was granted an estate in Ireland, where he
married Mary Fitzgerald. One of their descendants, Thomas Hopkins, became
a merchant in Dublin. In April 1791 he married Elizabeth Fitzakerly, “a highly
accomplished young bride of sixteen, a skilled musician, an artist with brush
and pencil, and a reader of the best literature”.
John Henry Hopkins, their only child, was born in Dublin in 1792, and soon
sent to Athlone to live with his paternal grandmother for several years. She
instilled in her grandson the value of daily private prayer and reading the
In 1801 the family emigrated from Dublin to Philadelphia. The crossing was
very long and stormy. At times everyone on board feared they would be
shipwrecked but young John knelt and prayed to God to deliver them out of
their danger. A sailor who saw him praying told the captain that the ship
would be safe because “such a little angel was on board.”
Neither parent was religious, but both valued education: Elizabeth Hopkins
established a school for girls while continuing her son’s education at home.
Eventually she sent John to a Baptist school for boys to prepare for university.
In his late teens Hopkins read books by infidel writers, including Thomas
Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau. He mastered all their attacks on the Christian
religion. However, he felt he had read only one side of the subject, and set out
to learn what the Christian writers of his day had to say. These writings
convinced him that the balance of probabilities lay heavily with the Christian
believers. At this time he was one of the best violinists in Philadelphia and also
learned to play the cello.
His carol centres on the Magi who visited Jesus as a child some time after his
birth, giving him gifts and paying homage to him. Though the event is
recounted in Matthew, there are no further details with regards to their
names or number or whether they were even royal. At the time of writing in
1857, John was serving as the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in
Pennsylvania. Although he originally worked as a journalist for a New York
newspaper and studied to become a lawyer, he chose to join the clergy when
he graduated from university. During his final year of teaching at the
seminary, Hopkins wrote We Three Kings for a Christmas pageant held at the
college, composing both the lyrics and music. Originally titled “Three Kings of
Orient”, it was sung within his circle of family and friends. Because of the
popularity it achieved among them, Hopkins decided to publish the carol in
1863 in his book Carols, Hymns, and Songs


Our God, Our Help in Ages Past
This is the original first line of the hymn written by Isaac Watts in 1708 which paraphrases the Psalm 90. (Changed in
1738 by John Wesley to ‘O God’). Watts was the son of a Dissenter (a person at odds with the Church of England) who
was in prison for his beliefs when Isaac was born. Dissenters were treated very badly at the time Watts was writing his
hymns. Queen Anne forced through Parliament an act – the Schism Act (never enforced) – which had the aim of severely
limiting religious freedoms.
The hymn must have brought assurance, promise and hope to those believers at a time of great fear and instability. What
endears it to so many through the years, is this strong message: from everlasting you are God to endless years the
same; our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home; O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to
come. God does not stop troubles coming our way; but He understands us, hears our cries for help and shelters us in His
loving arms.
The hymn is often sung at Remembrance Day Services. The words with its image of time like an ever-rolling stream
bearing all its sons away and the poignancy of the word sons bringing to mind all those who went off to war and never
came home. God surely is our eternal home.
The hymn tune is St Anne which was composed by the then organist of St Anne’s Church in Soho, William Croft. The story
goes that it was the last hymn sung at a church service presided over by Captain Edward John Smith on the morning
before the Titanic sank.

In Christ We Stand

Stuart Townend (born 1963) is an English Christian worship leader and writer of hymns, including In Christ Alone, cowritten with Keith Getty. He is the youngest son of Rev’d John Townend, a Church of England vicar in Sowerby Bridge who died in a motor accident in 1985. Townend started learning to play the piano when he was 7 and he studied literature at the University of Sussex where he met his wife, Caroline.
In Christ alone was created as a congregational hymn to be loved and sung, not as an academic piece to find a home in an anthology of verse.
The drama of a turbulent wind whipping the landscape suddenly stilled to a breathless hush and tranquility is painted in this verse. Alliteration, “firm/fiercest”, carries us through the drama, through the drought. Thirst can be fierce, whether in a person or a land. There are reasons why this hymn was sung by military personnel in Iraqi foxholes so soon after its release. The opposite of a storm is stillness. The opposite of turbulence is also a Rock, a cornerstone, the massive stone outcropping amid endless, shifting desert sands that is our Foundation, our Christ.
“When fears are stilled” reminds us of Christ’s miraculous stilling of the storm at sea, and of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God, I will be exalted among the peoples, I will be exalted in the earth.”


This hymn was first published in 1931 with words by the children’s author and poet, Eleanor Farjeon, and is said to have been inspired by the village of Alfriston in East Sussex. It was set to a traditional Scottish Gaelic tune, Bunessan which is a village on the Island of Mull. Morning has broken was originally published in the second edition of Songs of Praise which was widely used in schools. Its editor, Percy Dearmer, later wrote of how the compilers wanted a hymn to give thanks for each day, so Eleanor was asked to make a poem to fit the lovely Scottish tune. Though it is clearly a hymn for children it has an appeal for adults too, praising God for the sights and sounds of the new day, and likens each dawn to the very first day in the Garden of Eden. Her poem achieved international fame when it was included in Cat Stevens’ 1971 album, Teaser and the Firecat and became a hit, rising high in the charts in the UK and in the USA.
Eleanor was born in London on 13th February 1881, the daughter of a popular novelist of the day, Benjamin Farjeon. Known as ‘Nellie’ to her immediate family, she was a sickly child who suffered from poor eyesight and was educated at home. Her father encouraged her to write from the age of five and she eventually earned a living as a journalist and broadcaster. She wrote poetry and stories and was a friend of both D.H. Lawrence and Walter de la Mare.
Eleanor Farjeon died on the 5th June 1965. During her lifetime she won many prestigious literary awards and an annual prize is presented in her name to this day by the Children’s Book Circle. The prize recognises outstanding contributions to the world of children’s books by an individual or organisation. Previous winners have been Michael Morpurgo, Terry Pratchett and Quentin Blake. Eleanor did turn down another honour – Dame of the British Empire – explaining that she “did not wish to become different from the milkman.”


This hymn was written by James Montgomery (1771 – 1854), a Scottish-born hymn writer and poet who was concerned with humanitarian causes such as the abolition of slavery and of exploitation of child chimney sweeps. He was raised in and theologically trained by the Moravian Church near Leeds. Failing school, he was apprenticed to a baker and then to a store-keeper. He moved to Sheffield in 1792 as assistant to Joseph Gales, printer of the Sheffield Register. Gales left England to avoid political persecution and Montgomery took the paper in hand, changing its name to the Sheffield Iris. Montgomery continued to write hymns such as Hail to the Lord’s Anointed and The Lord is My Shepherd. From 1835 until his death, Montgomery lived in Glossop Road. He was well regarded and was honoured by a public funeral, and buried in Sheffield General Cemetery. In 1861, a monument was erected over his grave at a cost of £1000 which was raised by public subscription. On its granite pedestal is inscribed: “Here lies interred, beloved by all who knew him, the Christian poet, patriot, and philanthropist. Wherever poetry is read, or Christian hymns sung, in the English language, ‘he being dead, yet speaketh’ by the genius, piety and taste embodied in his writings.” After it fell into disrepair the statue was moved to the precinct of Sheffield Cathedral in 1971, where there is also a memorial window.

This hymn is traditionally associated with those in the maritime armed services. It was written in 1860 by William Whiting. It was popularised by the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy in the late 19th century. The hymn has a long tradition in civilian maritime contexts as well, being regularly invoked by ships’ chaplains and sung during services on ocean crossings. William Whiting (1825 – 1878) was an English writer and hymnist. He was born in Kensington and educated at Clapham and Winchester College, growing up near the ocean on the coasts of England. Because of his musical ability he was made master of Winchester College Choristers’ School. At the age of 35 he had felt his life spared by God when a violent storm nearly claimed the ship he was travelling on, instilling in him a belief in God’s command over the rage and calm of the sea. As headmaster of the Winchester College Choristers’ School some years later, he was approached by a student about to travel to the United States, who confided in Whiting an overwhelming fear of the ocean voyage. Whiting shared his experiences of the ocean and wrote this hymn to “anchor his faith”. In writing it, Whiting is generally thought to have been inspired by Psalm 107 which describes the power and fury of the seas in great detail:
Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunkards; they were at their wits’ end. Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed.
John B. Dykes, an Anglican clergyman, composed the tune Melita to accompany the hymn. Melita is an archaic term for Malta, which was the site of a shipwreck, mentioned in Acts chapters 27–28 involving the Apostle Paul.


ABIDE WITH ME The author of the hymn, Henry Francis Lyte, was an Anglican priest and vicar of All Saints Church in Brixham, Devon. For most of his life Lyte suffered from poor health, and he would regularly travel abroad for relief, as was the tradition in those days. There is some controversy as to the exact dating of the text to Abide with Me. One article says that Lyte composed the hymn in 1820 while visiting a dying friend. It was related that Francis was staying with the Hore family in County Wexford and had visited an old friend, William Augustus Le Hunte, who was dying. As Francis sat with the dying man, William kept repeating the phrase ‘Abide with me… Abide with me…’ After leaving William’s bedside Francis Lyte wrote the hymn and gave a copy of it to William’s family. The belief is that when Lyte felt his own end approaching twenty-seven years later after developing tuberculosis, he thought then of the lines he had written so many years before. The Biblical link for the hymn is Luke 24:29 where the disciples asked Jesus to abide with them for it is toward evening and the day is spent. Using his friend’s more personal phrasing ‘Abide with Me’, Lyte composed the hymn. His daughter, Anna Maria Maxwell Hogg, tells how Abide with Me came out of that context. The summer was passing away and each day seemed to have a special value as being one day nearer his departure. His family were surprised and almost alarmed at his announcing his intention of preaching once more to his people. His weakness and the possible danger attending the effort were stressed but in vain. “It was better,” as he used to say often playfully when in comparative health, “to wear out than to rust out”. He felt that he should be allowed to fulfil his wish, and did not fear the result. His expectation was well founded. He did preach and, amid the breathless attention of his hearers, gave them a sermon on the Holy Communion. In the evening of the same day he placed in the hands of a near and dear relative the little hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, with a tune he had composed, adapting it to fit the words. However the tune to which we sing it most often is Eventide by William Henry Monk. Just weeks later, on 20th November while on holiday in Nice, Henry Lyte died. The hymn was sung for the very first time at his funeral. Lyte wrote many hymns during his lifetime, including Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven and Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken. He had always loved the musical side of worship.



Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so; Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me! He who died Heaven’s gate to open wide He will wash away my sin Let his little child come in.
Jesus loves me! He will stay Close beside me all the way. If I love him when I die He will take me home on high.
I remember as a child at Sunday School often singing this hymn by the American writer Anna Bartlett Warner (1827 – 1915). She wrote it as a poem which her sister, Susan, requested for a dying child to bring comfort and peace though, as an adult, I think its simple, direct message is rather blunt for a child. It was often taught by missionaries to new converts as it was thought that ultimately what intellectuals and children alike need is the simple message of JesusJESUS LOVES ME Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so; Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me! He who died Heaven’s gate to open wide He will wash away my sin Let his little child come in.
Jesus loves me! He will stay Close beside me all the way. If I love him when I die He will take me home on high.
I remember as a child at Sunday School often singing this hymn by the American writer Anna Bartlett Warner (1827 – 1915). She wrote it as a poem which her sister, Susan, requested for a dying child to bring comfort and peace though, as an adult, I think its simple, direct message is rather blunt for a child. It was often taught by missionaries to new converts as it was thought that ultimately what intellectuals and children alike need is the simple message of Jesus.


The anonymous text that is usually called the Prayer of Saint Francis is a widely known Christian prayer for peace. Often associated with the Italian Saint Francis of Assisi but entirely absent from his writings, the prayer in its present form has not been traced back further than 1912. Its first known occurrence was in French, in a small spiritual magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell) published by a Catholic organisation in Paris whose name translates at The League of the Holy Mass. The author’s name was not given, although it may have been the founder, Father Esther Bouquerel. The prayer was heavily publicised during both world wars. Its broadly inclusive language has found appeal with diverse faiths encouraging service to others. Noble as its sentiments are, it is said that Saint Francis would not have written such a piece, focused as it is on the self, with its constant repetition of the pronouns “I” and “me”, and the words “God” and “Jesus” never appear once. In 1967 Make Me a Channel of Your Peace was adapted and set to a chant-like melody by a South African songwriter, Sebastian Temple, who had become a third order Franciscan. The hymn is an anthem of the Royal British Legion.

HOW GREAT THOU ART This is a hymn based on a Swedish traditional melody and a poem written by Carl Boberg (1859–1940) in Sweden in 1885. It was translated into German and then into Russian before being translated in 1949 into the English version we now sing. This was by Stuart K. Hine, who added two verses of his own. The composition was set to a Russian melody and was popularised during the Billy Graham crusades. The idea for the hymn happened one afternoon when Carl and his friends were returning home from an afternoon service and a storm cloud appeared on the horizon soon followed by lightning flashing across the sky and loud thunderclaps. Strong winds swept over the meadows and billowing fields of grain. Then rain fell in cool, fresh showers. In a little while the storm was over, and a rainbow appeared.  Arriving home, Carl opened the window and saw the bay of water like a mirror before him and from the woods on the other side of the bay, he heard the song of a thrush and church bells tolling in the quiet evening. It was this series of sights, sounds, and experiences that inspired the writing of the hymn which was published in 1886. O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder Consider all the works Thy hand hath made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. When through the woods and forest glades I wander And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze:

TELL ME THE STORIES OF JESUS Tell me the stories of Jesus I love to hear; things I would ask him to tell me if he were here: scenes by the wayside, tales of the sea, stories of Jesus, tell them to me. William Henry Parker (1845-1929) was born in New Basford, Nottingham in 1845. He was the head of an insurance company and a devoted member of Chelsea Street Baptist Church, where he was active in Sunday School work and began to write hymns for use at anniversaries. This hymn was written in about 1885 at the request of the children of his Sunday School class saying, “Teacher, tell us another story.” One verse recalls the story of the children who gathered with Jesus which appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels. Another verse recalls Christ’s miracle of stilling the tempest; one focuses on Christ’s triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. The original final stanza recalls Christ’s crucifixion. The tune was written by Frederick A. Challinor (1866-1952), who received a Doctor of Music from the Royal College of Music, for a competition sponsored by London’s National Sunday school Union. Its lilting tune is ideal for a ballad but the style perhaps dates the hymn for some.

Jeanne Clark