George Matheson suffered poor eyesight from birth, and at age 15 learned that he was going blind. Not one to be easily discouraged, he enrolled in the University of Glasgow and graduated at age 19. He then began theological studies, and it was while pursuing those that he began totally blind.
Matheson’s three sisters rose to the occasion and tutored him through his studies—even going so far as to learn Hebrew, Greek, and Latin to be able to help their brother. With their help he was able to complete his studies.
After graduation, he answered a call to serve as pastor of a church in Innellan, Argylshire, Scotland. He had a successful ministry there, and was later called to serve as pastor of the much larger (2000 member) St. Bernard’s Church in Edinburgh.
On the day that one of his sisters was married, Matheson wrote this hymn. He recorded this account of that experience in his journal:
“My hymn was composed in the manse of Inellan on the evening of June 6, 1882. I was at that time alone. It was the day of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of my family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something had happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high. I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse.”
Matheson obviously didn’t intend to tell us what caused his “most severe mental suffering,” but people who know his background strongly suspect that it had to do with a heartbreaking experience several years earlier. His fiancee had broken her engagement to him, telling him that she couldn’t see herself going through life married to a blind man. Matheson never married, and it seems likely that his sister’s wedding brought to memory the woman that he had loved and the wedding that he had never enjoyed.
At any rate, Matheson’s “severe mental suffering” inspired him to write this hymn, “O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go.” The hymn celebrates the constancy of God’s love—”love that wilt not let me go”—”light that follow’st all my way”—”joy that seekest me through pain.” It concludes by celebrating “Life that shall endless be.”
Albert Peace, organist and editor of a journal called The Scottish Hymnal, wrote the tune, “St. Margaret,” that is associated with the hymn. His experience was amazingly like that of Matheson, in that the music came to him quickly and he was able to write the tune in only five minutes.
When I read the various accounts of Matheson’s writing this hymn, one sentence struck me as especially important. It was this—Matheson said, “The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.” There is an important lesson in that. All of us suffer some sort of heartbreak or disappointment or disability at some point in our lives. What makes all the difference is our response —whether we let the hardship stop us or inspire us to greater effort.
Matheson suffered two severe blows that could have stopped him—the loss of his eyesight and the loss of his beloved. In both cases, he made the best of a bad situation—and we are all the richer for it. As this hymn reveals, it was his faith in God that kept him going through the adversities that he suffered. He believed that God’s love would not let him go—and that God’s light would follow him all his way—and that God’s joy would seek him through his pain—and that faith made all the difference.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan