An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Horatius Bonar

May 11th, 2011 | By | Category: Sermons

Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on 11th May 2011

Living lives where we are surrounded by every time saving device imaginable, it seems strange how little time we seem to have.  How often when asked about something, do we say, ‘I would like to be involved, but I haven’t the time’.

When reading of Horatius Bonar, one of the things that was most striking was how someone living in the 19th Century seemed to have so much time to do so many things.  Acknowledged as one of the greatest of Scottish hymnwriters, Bonar wrote more than 600 hymns.  To put that into perspective, if one wrote a new hymn every month, it would take fifty years to write 600 hymns; or, if it was possible to write a new hymn every week, it would still take twelve years to compile a collection of 600.  They were hymns that encompassed a wide expanse of thought and experience.

At Bonar’s memorial service following his death in 1889, a friend, E. H. Lundie, said of Bonar’s work:

His hymns were written in very varied circumstances, sometimes timed by the tinkling brook that babbled near him; sometimes attuned to the ordered tramp of the ocean, whose crested waves broke on the beach by which he wandered; sometimes set to the rude music of the railway train that hurried him to the scene of duty; sometimes measured by the silent rhythm of the midnight stars that shone above him.

Horatius Bonar came from a professional family; as Solicitor of Excise, Bonar’s father was one of the senior tax officials in Scotland.  One of eleven children, Bonar and two of his brother were to enter the Presbyterian ministry; Bonar was educated at Edinburgh University and ordained in 1838.

Appearances can be deceptive, the pictures of Bonar suggest a severe, austere Victorian gentleman; but when we look at the words of his hymns we see beyond that image to a man deeply touched by his life experiences.  In 1843, he married Jane Catherine Lundie.  They were to experience the deepest possible sadness as, in succession, five of their young children died.

Bonar was among four hundred ministers of the Church of Scotland who left to form the Free Church in 1843.  Their chief objection concerned the rights of patronage, the rights of rich an powerful people to appoint to churches ministers of their own choice.  In the Church of Ireland, where we take for granted the right of our parishes to seek their own clergy, the idea that some rich, and often remote, person would have absolute right to appoint the person who is going to be pastor to the parish seems very strange.

Bonar’s ministry was spent in Leith and Kelso before he moved to be a minister in Edinburgh in his later years.  Reading accounts of his life, the sheer volume of work he managed is impressive.  A diligent pastor to his congregation, a powerful preacher in his church, he still found time to act as editor of various journal and to write pamphlets and books—as well as his 600 hymns.

Commanding great respect in evangelical circles, Bonar supported the visit of Dwight L. Moody, the great American evangelist, to Scotland in 1874 and 1875.  Moody’s meetings attracted thousands of people, frequently being held at open air venues.  Andrew Bonar, Horatius’ brother, was a prominent supporter of Moody and he and Horatius were to draw criticism from the more Calvinist of the Free Church ministers.

Bonar’s eighty years of life were times of extraordinary change, being born in 1809, when Napoleon Bonaparte was still marching through Europe, he lived through until 1889, when the industrial age and the railways had transformed daily life.  Perhaps it is the breadth of his experience and the height and depth of the emotions he would have felt that lend the strength to Bonar’s hymns.  When we look at his hymns that we regularly sing, there is a sense not of a 19th Century Evangelical who became ensnared in various controversies, but of someone who writes timelessly of timeless things.

“Fill thou my life, O Lord my God, in every part with praise”, writes Bonar.  It is an expression of his desire that our lives be lives of integrity, that Monday to Saturday may reflect what we say on Sunday.  Bonar seeks after holy worship, which does not depend upon elaborate church rites or great revivalist gatherings, but upon a faith in what Jesus has done.  One of his books is called ‘Rent Veil’, it is a reference to the veil in the Temple being torn in two when Jesus dies at Calvary, giving ordinary people access to the holy of holies.  This is what Bonar says about holiness in ‘Rent Veil’

“Holiness is not associated with darkness, or gorgeous rites, or glittering robes, or fragrant incense, or swelling music, or a magnificent temple, or an unnumbered multitude. All these may be unholy things, hateful to God. There may be the absence of all these, and yet there may be holy worship: the worship of holy lips; the worship of holy hands; the worship of holy knees; the worship of a holy soul. It is the blood that consecrates; whether it be man or place, whether it be voice or soul. That which is presented to God must have passed through the blood, else it is unholy, however imposing and    splendid. If it has come through the blood, it is holy, however small and mean and poor.

Bonar’s thoughts in ‘Rent Veil’ are captured in lines we sing from ‘Fill thou’ my life’.  The hymn asks that we may express ‘praise in the common things of life, its goings out and in; praise in each duty and deed, however small and mean’.

The ‘Rent Veil’ reflects not only the words of ‘Fill thou, my life’, but also the words of ‘Here O Lord, I see thee face to face’.  Bonar takes the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion with the utmost seriousness, ‘Here would I feed upon the bread of God’, he writes in the hymn.  In so doing, he believes we are part of the tradition of the people of Israel, but see that tradition in a different way.  Here is how he sees the bread of God:

“Formerly it was the earthly that revealed the heavenly, now it is the    heavenly that illuminates the earthly. Standing beside the brazen serpent, Moses might see afar off Messiah the Healer of the nations; standing, or rather I should say sitting, by faith beside this same Messiah in the heavenly places, we see the brazen serpent afar off.  From the rock of Horeb, the elders of Israel might look up and catch afar off some glimpses of the water of life flowing from the rock of ages; we, close by the heavenly fountain, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, look down and recognise the old desert rock, with its gushing stream. Taking in his hand the desert manna, Israel could look up to the true bread above; we, taking into our hands the bread of God, look downward on the desert manna, not needing now with Israel to ask, “What is it?”

Do we take Holy Communion with the seriousness with which Horatius Bonar approached it?

It is another of Bonar’s books, ‘God’s Way of Peace’, that captures the sentiments of his hymn, ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say.  The book is sub-titled, ‘A Book for the Anxious’.  Something called a book for the anxious in our own times would probably become a best seller in our own times.  ‘I heard the voice of Jesus’ say is addressed to the ‘weary, worn and sad’.  There are as many of us fitting those categories in the 21st Century as there were in the 19th.

Bonar’s skill is in writing hymns for all people in all situations, which is why more than 120 years after his death his words are still sung so often.



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