Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Abide with Me; 'Tis Eventide

Praise for the Lord #10

Words: Martin Lowrie Hofford, 1884.
Music: Harrison Millard, 1884.

Neither Hofford nor Millard are represented by any other hymns in Praise for the Lord, and in fact they have none listed in the Cyberhymnal, a copious source for such information, besides this one. Each of them wrote other works, both sacred and secular, but it appears that this hymn alone of their collaborations has survived into any modern usage.

Stanza 1:
Abide with me, ’tis eventide!
The day is past and gone;
The shadows of the evening fall;
The night is coming on!
Within my heart a welcome Guest,
Within my home abide.

O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, ’tis eventide!
O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, ’tis eventide!

The text is a meditation on the experience of the two unnamed disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the day of His resurrection, but did not recognize Him: "Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, 'Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.' And He went in to stay with them."(Luke 24:28-29)

Much of the first stanza is a poetic elaboration on the coming of night. Nighttime, even in our modern age of electric lighting, can still be a time of fears. Trials, whatever they may be, always seem worse at night; and just as the rising sun usually fills even the hardest times with a little bit of hope, the setting sun can cause us to dread the long dark hours ahead. But after establishing this somber scene, Hofford makes a fine poetic turn--the coming of the night is of no concern, because there is "within my heart a welcome Guest," whose presence fills our lives with such warmth and light that no earthly darkness matters.

Stanza 2:
Abide with me, ’tis eventide!
Thy walk today with me
Has made my heart within me burn,
As I communed with Thee.
Thy earnest words have filled my soul
And kept me near Thy side.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus were discussing Jesus as the went, but when the very subject of their conversation joined the company, they were (miraculously, one supposes) unable to recognize Him.(Luke 24:14-16) But after He revealed Himself they said to one another, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?"(Luke 24:32) What a feast for the intellect, the heart, and the soul it must have been, to walk and talk with Jesus for an evening! The wonderful news is, we still can. We can commune with Him in His word every day, meditating on His teachings. They are never out of date--they are as comforting and convicting as the day they were spoken.

Stanza 3:
Abide with me, ’tis eventide!
And lone will be the night,
If I cannot commune with Thee,
Nor find in Thee my light.
The darkness of the world, I fear,
Would in my home abide.

What would your life be without Jesus? This final stanza turns the first stanza inside out, showing that without Him, the spiritual darkness of the world--not the physical darkness of evening--will dwell in us, regardless of the time of day. Jesus once said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life;"(John 8:12) but He also said that the inverse is equally true: "If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him."(John 11:10) What will our choice be?

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in..."(Revelation 3:20)

About the music: Harrison Millard (1829-1895) was an American operatic tenor and minor composer, leaving behind a number of art songs, choral works, and even an opera.(Cyberhymnal) The influence of this broad acquaintance with the classical tradition can be seen even in this little gospel song, with its pleasant, well-formed melody and harmonic variety. For example, after the stanza's calm, repetitive, folk-like melody, the refrain immediately leaps up to the leading tone of the scale (TI, the last note of the major scale before reaching DO again); but instead of continuing up to the top of the scale, the melody winds back down again. The sense of resolution we are expecting is delayed until the repetition of the phrase, "O Sa- vior", upon which the melody finally reaches up to DO. This makes a logical and satisfying answer to the expectant-sounding phrase before; but at the same time, the DO is harmonized with a minor chord rather than major, thus delaying our expected resolution once again before the finish. It is fairly ordinary stuff for classical music of the era, but it is a nice touch of craftsmanship in the context of a gospel song, many of which use no more than three different chords.

A little comparative criticism: The similarity of this hymn to Henry F. Lyte's "Abide with me" (PFTL #7) is obvious, since they draw on some of the same imagery, and it is hard to avoid the question: Is it as good a hymn? In one sense, we might say it is obviously not, because "Abide with me" is one of our most well-known and beloved hymns, and "Abide with me; 'tis eventide" is comparatively obscure. Is that good evidence? Not necessarily, since some mediocre hymns are more "well-known and beloved" than they deserve to be, and some better hymns ought to be rescued from obscurity. But Lyte's "Abide with me" has been well-received across the English-speaking world, and across several generations, far from the time and place in which it appeared--evidence of something substantial beyond the fashions of its day.

On a more analytical level, "Abide with me" speaks to a greater range of human experience and emotion, and describes more fully the sources of our need for Christ to "abide in us", whereas "Abide with me; 'tis eventide" is more narrowly focused on the desire to foster a closer relationship to the Lord. "Abide with me" is more urgent in its pleading ("Help of the helpless!"), and more incisive and bitter in its assessment of what is wrong with the world about us ("change and decay in all around I see"). Perhaps this is why it has had a greater impact on our hymnody--because it is more emotionally pungent. None of this, of course, lessens the real value of "Abide with me; 'tis eventide"; it is a fine text, rooted in scripture and bringing a needed exhortation.


Cyberhymnal. Harrison Millard. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/i/l/millard_h.htm


  1. wow. I just found your blog and I love it. Thank you for sharing your insights with us. I have been richly blessed. I have to give a discourse on the Hymn "Abide with me;'tis Eventide" at my church and your insights have helped me. I thank you.

  2. Thanks for your encouragement! That hymn is a favorite because I learned it from my Dad. In my teen years I used to ride along with him to out-of-town preaching engagements, and sometimes we passed the time by singing from the hymnal. It brings back memories.