By Karen O’Connor
I felt the aircraft wheels touch the runway and my heart thumped. My husband and I and our fellow travelers had landed in Manchester, England. It was September 18, 2013. The British American Hymn Sing Tour of England and Wales sponsored by Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center had begun. My eyes misted and my palms grew moist. This was a trip I had dreamed about and longed for many months before.
I was about to experience a giant leap in my faith as we visited the homes, gravesites, and churches where some of the great Christian hymn composers had lived, worked, and worshipped.
I had not been raised in the Christian church, so most of the hymns as well as the lives of the composers were new to me when I gave my life to Christ some 25 years ago. So when the opportunity to go on such a trip came up, I was all in from the moment I heard about it.
I can’t cover all of the wonderful places we visited or talk about the lives and hymns of each composer, but I want to focus on the four that most influenced me during the 12 days we were in England and Wales.
“TAKE MY LIFE AND LET IT BE”
By Frances Ridley Havergal (1836-1879)
In the late afternoon of our second day, the tour bus pulled in to the town of Stourport along the Severn River to the village of Astley for our first hymn sing. Frances Ridley Havergal was a composer of many famous hymns, but most especially “Take My Life and Let It Be.” She was born in the rectory of Astley Church, where her father, William Henry Havergal, was the minister.
From the time she was a young child Frances was committed to Christ and grew up to be one of the most popular female hymnists. Historians point out that she had no apparent interest in anything that was going on in the world. She turned down several marriage proposals, a high-end lifestyle, and even sold all of her jewelry in order to dedicate her life to evangelism, music, and hymn writing. Her life’s goal was to share her faith in Jesus so more souls would be saved.
Frances is buried next to her father at Astley Church. The inscription on her tomb reads: “by her writings in prose and verse she being dead yet speaketh.” These words really touched me, as they show how our influence goes on long after we die if we focus on Christ and share him with others.
Our leader, an organist and pianist, led us in this treasured hymn that is not only a testimony to the composer but a call to all people who want to live, as Frances did, for Christ alone:
“Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.”
“GUIDE ME, O THOU GREAT JEHOVAH”
By William Williams (1717-1791)
On another day during our short sojourn to Wales, we drove to Llandovery to visit the Welsh farmhouse and famous home of William Williams, the “sweet singer of Wales” as he was known. The land surrounding the house was filled with grazing sheep, rolling hills, and a blanket of blue sky, not unlike the environment William himself would have seen every day that he lived there.
The current owners are sixth generation relatives of the composer and have dedicated one of the rooms to his memory, featuring a variety of his writings, photographs, and memorabilia. After a brief lecture we moved to the small living room where William’s desk sat in a corner. Our group then sang our hearts out:
“Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty,
Hold me with they powerful hand;
Bread of Heaven! Feed me till I want no more.”
William became an influential preacher who had a knack for assessing people’s religious maturity and experience and was able to minister to them effectively as he travelled extensively all over Wales. He was considered the country’s greatest literary figure of the eighteenth century, having authored over 90 volumes and pamphlets on various topics, as well as poetry and Christian hymns.
The longing of most people throughout the ages has been that God would guide us, for without divine guidance we know we are lost. Even when men and women relapse in their faith, the desire for God’s hand never really disappears, and this hymn is a powerful reminder of that longing.
“ROCK OF AGES”
By Augustus Toplady (1740-1778)
One of my most memorable experiences was a stop outside Cheddar Gorge, where a long vertical cleft in a mighty rock boasted a sign that announced to tourists the place where composer Augustus Toplady found shelter from a terrible storm, and as legend has it, then wrote the inspiring “Rock of Ages,” one of the most beloved hymns. I stood in the cleft as my husband snapped my picture. I remember shivering at just the thought of standing in such a place.
“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure
Save from wrath and make me pure.”
Augustus was converted by a sermon he heard delivered in a barn in Ireland in 1755. It is said that he was a bit of a loner, yet a vicar at St. Andrew’s Church in Broadhembury. He died at the young age of 38, holding to the end his Calvinistic beliefs that fueled his controversy with John Wesley. Altogether he wrote 130 hymns, but the words of “Rock of Ages” seem to cry out humanity’s deepest desire—to be hidden in Christ and to be made pure by his blood.
By John Newton (1725-1807)
We visited the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney on the Ouse River. William Cowper was a leading eighteenth century poet and letter writer. His friend John Newton, the former slave trader, became the preacher of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul from 1764-1780. He wrote the most popular hymn of all time, “Amazing Grace”:
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.”
John’s mother had taught him Bible lessons and the hymns of Isaac Watts as a young boy, but after she died when he was 6 years of age, John gradually turned to sailing with his father and at one point was forced to serve on a naval ship. Later he joined the crew of a slave ship, a period of his life that he very much regretted. Finally, when a fierce storm in 1748 threatened his life and those of his shipmates, he prayed for the first time in years. He committed his life to Christ from that point.
Even after our glorious trip ended, I carried with me the memory and experience of being transformed in my Christian faith by the lyrics of these beautiful hymns and the lives of the composers who travelled the road long before I was born. I’m so grateful to them and for them.
Karen O’Connor is a freelance writer from Watsonville, California (karenoconnor.com).