Posted by: rcottrill | April 21, 2010

Today in 1783 – Reginald Heber Born

Reginald Heber was an Anglican clergyman whom novelist William Thackeray described as “an English gentleman of the best sort; handsome, witty, competent and of high character.” In 1823, Heber served as bishop of Calcutta, where he laboured strenuously for three years in the hot Indian climate. He died in 1826, likely of sunstroke. Poet Robert Southey wrote the inscription for his monument:

He performed his humblest as well as his highest duties carefully, with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his strength.

Heber was a gifted poet, and a number of his hymns are still in use. In fact, Holy, Holy, Holy is sung regularly in many churches, and is often placed first in published hymnals. Here are a few of Heber’s songs:

Bread of the World in Mercy Given
Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning
By Cool Siloam’s Shady Rill
From Greenland’s Icy Mountains
God That Madest Earth and Heaven (stanza 1)
Holy, Holy, Holy
The Son of God Goes Forth to War

(For more on how From Greenland’s Icy Mountains came to be written, see Today in 1819.) Holy, Holy, Holy was written for Trinity Sunday, when Reginald Heber was a vicar in England. Published posthumously in 1826, it is based on Rev. 4:8-11.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessèd Trinity!

The Son of God Goes Forth to War was written in 1812 for St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26th). Stephen was the first martyr in the early church (Acts 7:51-60), and Heber commemorates not only his death, but the sacrifice of those who followed after, calling for the commitment of others with the repeated question, “Who follows in his train?”

The Son of God goes forth to war,
A kingly crown to gain;
His blood red banner streams afar:
Who follows in His train?
Who best can drink His cup of woe,
Triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below,
He follows in His train.

That martyr first, whose eagle eye
Could pierce beyond the grave;
Who saw his Master in the sky,
And called on Him to save.
Like Him, with pardon on His tongue,
In midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong:
Who follows in his train?

Please don’t tell me young people can’t understand the old hymns, and can’t sing them with passion. Here is a small congregation made up mostly of teens and young adults. The tune used for the above hymn is not the traditional one, but the words are Heber’s, published nearly 200 years ago. Gives me goosebumps!

(2) Today in 1794 – Henry Ware Born
HGraphic Familyenry Ware Jr. was a minister in Boston, in a church where poet Ralph Waldo Emerson briefly served as his associate. At his death he left behind four volumes of writings. A poem from his pen was published posthumously in 1846, in a volume with the imposing title, Selections of Hymns and Poetry for the Use of Infant and Juvenile Schools and Families.

Ware’s hymn Happy the Home employs the word “Happy” in the sense of fortunate, or especially favoured. The need is more urgent than ever for solid Christian families.

Happy the home when God is there,
And love fills every breast;
When one their wish, and one their prayer,
And one their heav’nly rest.

Happy the home where Jesus’ name
Is sweet to every ear;
Where children early speak His fame,
And parents hold Him dear.

Happy the home where prayer is heard,
And praise each day does rise;
Where parents love the sacred Word
And all its wisdom prize.

(3) Today in 1856 – Johnson Oatman Born
Johnson Oatman Jr. was ordained through the Methodist Episcopal Church at the age of 19, though he remained a local preacher without pastoral assignment. He was involved with his father’s shipping business, and later established an insurance company in Mount Holly, New Jersey. Beginning in his mid-thirties, he wrote many poems that became the texts for gospel songs. Here are a few:

Count Your Blessings
Every Bridge Is Burned Behind Me
Higher Ground
Holy, Holy Is What the Angels Sing
He Included Me
No, Not One
The Last Mile of the Way

Count Your Blessings first appeared in Songs for Young People, in 1897. But it is not just a hymn for the young. Each of us would benefit from daily counting God’s blessings. It would often help to keep us from a grouchy negativism! In churches where I have served as pastor, this song was often used on Thanksgiving Sunday, before a time of testimonies.

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Here is George Beverley Shea singing this gospel song.

Higher Ground, written in 1898, is a fine song of aspiration. It speaks of a desire not to become mired in an average hum-drum Christian life, not to just “get by,” but to be a dynamic Christian, living in joy and victory.

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s table land,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.


  1. The kids can sing in parts, too! I will have to post this as an alternate tune some day.

    If I may boast a little, these kids from Higher Things (at the link below) are putting the “singing” back in “the Singing Church,” as Lutherans used to be known as.

    I find this hymn really difficult to sing, yet here they belt it out!

    And this versification of the Te Deum with a tune from Holst’s The Planets sends chills up my spine every time I hear it!

    • Thanks for the samples! Great to know that hymn singing is still alive and well. Holst’s tune is a great one. It will always be associated in my mind with Princess Diana, since “I Vow to Thee My Country” was her favourite hymn, and she requested it for her wedding.

      And speaking of young people and hymn singing: I love the music of St. Olaf College, and look forward to their Christmas program each year. Young people presenting solid sacred music in a highly skilled way. Thrilling!

  2. […] more about Reginald Heber and his great hymns, see Today in 1783 (the date of his […]

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