Hymn Story

Sweet Hour of Prayer

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Rev. Thomas Salmon (1800-1854), a Congregational clergyman, served as the pastor of the Congregational Church in Coleshill, Warwickshire, England from 1838 to 1842.  Upon his return to New York, he submitted the words to “Sweet Hour of Prayer” to The New York Observer with this note:

“During my residence at Coleshill, Warwickshire, England, I became acquainted with W.W. Walford, the blind preacher, a man of obscure birth and connections and no education, but of strong mind and most retentive memory. In the pulpit he never failed to select a lesson well adapted to his subject, giving chapter and verse with unerring precision, and scarcely ever misplacing a word in his repetition of the Psalms, every part of the New Testament, the prophecies, and some of the histories, so as to have the reputation of knowing the whole Bible by heart.”

He asked the Observer to publish these words “if you think them worthy of preservation.”  The newspaper agreed that the words were worthy, and published them in its September 13, 1845 issue.

About fifteen years later, in 1860 or 1861, William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-1868), a composer from New York, wrote the tune that is usually associated with this song.  Bradbury also composed the music for other popular hymns, including: “Jesus Loves Me,” “He Leadeth Me,” “Just as I Am,” “Jesus Like a Savior Lead Us,” and “The Solid Rock.”

The song’s fame grew slowly but surely.  It was first published in a Methodist hymnal in 1878.

After the song became well-known, students of hymnody tried to track down W.W. Walford, but they found no one of that name who fit the description given by Salmon.  They did locate a Rev. William Walford in Homerton, England, but he was well educated and not blind.  (Note:  Coleshill is located near Birmingham, England.  I was unable to locate Homerton, but my understanding is that Homerton was located near Coleshill.)

Two things struck me as I studied the history of this song:

The first is that neither the original author nor Rev. Salmon ever knew that these verses would become a much beloved song.  Rev. Salmon died in 1854, long before William Bradbury composed the music.  Rev. Walford, of course, probably never even knew that his poem had been published in a newspaper.  The lesson for me was that God very often works through our lives in wonderful ways that we could never even guess.  I am looking forward to pleasant surprises of that sort when I get to heaven.

The second is that the words of this song speak directly to our condition—the “world of care” in which we live—our “seasons of distress and grief.”  But it offers a remedy—
a “sweet hour of prayer.”  And it holds out hope that we will find relief  and escape “the tempter’s snare.”  We preachers might take a note of those three points:  Speaking to the human condition —offering a remedy—and holding out hope.  That’s good preaching, and that’s what this song does.

Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan