Tag Archives: hymn writers

A Famous Sunday School Song: Onward Christian Soldiers



Whitmonday was a festival for schoolchildren. During the day children would march to neighboring villages carrying crosses and banners. In 1864, local pastor Sabine Baring-Gould wanted a new hymn to encourage the children in their marching. In just fifteen minutes, he wrote a song called “Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners.” It was later renamed “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He had no intention of it ever being published, especially in adult hymnals. Sabine-Gould was at the time a curate of a parish in Yorkshire county in northern England. He recounts how and why he wrote the song:

“It was written in a very simple fashion…Whitmonday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire, and one Whitmonday it was arranged that our school should join its forces with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to another, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up one night resolved to write something myself. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was the result. It was written in great haste and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its great popularity.”

Though it was never intended for publication, it found its way into a periodical later that year and soon into English hymnals around the globe. Louis Benson suspects that it caught on in the U.S. because it tapped into the “soldier spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by four years of Civil War” which had just ended. 

The music was composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871. Sullivan named the tune “St. Gertrude” after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymour, at whose country home he composed the tune. The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favored processional. The piece became Sullivan’s most popular hymn. The theme of the hymn is taken from New Testament references to the Christian being a soldier such as II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): “Thou therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1941 on the battleship Prince of Wales to agree to the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose “Onward Christian Soldiers” and he made a radio broadcast afterwards explaining his choice:

“We sang Onward Christian Soldiers indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals…it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”

The hymn has been sung at many funerals, including that of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the National Cathedral in D.C. in March 1969. Apart from its obvious militant associations, the songs has been associated with protest against the established order, particularly the civil rights movement. An attempt was made in the 1980s to strip “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the United Methodist Hymnal and the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 due to the perceived militarism. Outrage among parishioners caused both committees to back down. However, the hymn was omitted from the 1990 hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Australian Hymn Book. 

Largely because of its association with missionaries of various types, the song has been sung in a number of movies and television programs including M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie and The Simpsons. 

I grew up with this hymn being sung at church and from my days in the church’s youth handbell choir. So it has great sentimental value. And indeed it is one of the great hymns of the church which has inspired and roused the hearts of generations of believers. 



Abide With Me: The Story Behind the Beloved Hymn


The hymn, “Abide With Me,” is one of the most popular English hymns of the past 150 years. Its author, Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), was an Anglican priest and the vicar of All Saints in Brixham, England, a small fishing village on the coast of Devonshire. Lyte was a published poet and an accomplished hymn-writer who also penned “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” For most of his life, he suffered from poor health and would regularly travel abroad for relief, as was the tradition of that day. Despite his compromised health, Lyte was a tireless minister and a devoted family man. He would often playfully comment that “It was better to wear out than to rust out.” 

In 1844, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. For the next three years, his health deteriorated. On September 4, 1847, he stood in the pulpit for the final time and delivered his farewell message to his parishioners, preaching on the meaning of the Eucharist. It was out of this context that this beloved hymn came out of. 

For that same afternoon, Lyte, after a walk on the beach, retired to his room. He emerged an hour later with a handwritten copy of “Abide With Me.” He then left for a voyage to Italy in order to get away from the cold damp coastal weather. While en route, he mailed a revised copy of the hymn to his wife, Anne. A few days later, on November 20, 1847, while resting in a hotel on the French Riviera, Father Lyte went home to be with the Lord. A fellow clergyman who with him during his final hours reported that his final words were “Peace! Joy!”

Lyte’s hymn was set to music to the tune of “Eventide” by William H. Monk (1823-1889) and was debuted at Lyte’s memorial service. 

The hymn is essentially a prayer for God to remain with the speaker throughout his life, trials, and death. The opening line alludes to Luke 24:29, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”

The hymn has been popular across many Christian denominations and was said to be a favorite of King George V and Mahatma Ghandi. It is often sung at Christian funerals. In the aftermath of the Titanic sinking, survivors reported that the ship’s band played the hymn while the ship was sinking. It was also sung at the weddings of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. It is sung before kickoff at every FA Cup Final and Rugby League, and at various annual celebrations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom, including Remembrance Day (what we call Veterans’ Day). It has also been recorded by various jazz and gospel music artists. The hymn has also been a part of the soundtrack in numerous films and television programs including “Shane,” “Doc Martin” and “Touched By an Angel.” It was also sung at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London games. 

One scholar has commented, “As He often does, God took the sad ending of a life and made something lasting and beautiful.” May this also be our constant prayer-that the Lord would indeed abide with us throughout our lives and also at our death. Amen.