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His Hymns Make Souls Feel Whole

Horatius Bonar (1808–1889)

If you could choose a century and a country, not to live in, but to visit in order to listen to preaching, what would it be?

A case could be made for the sixteenth century if you enjoy Geneva, and Calvin is a hero to you. There is certainly something attractive about London in the seventeenth century — imagine hearing John Bunyan, Thomas Watson, John Owen, and dozens of others — some of them preaching within a few minutes’ walk of each other. Or perhaps you would prefer to be there two centuries later to hear C.H. Spurgeon.

For myself, I think I would choose “my ain folk” and visit Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. To be able to hear Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Martin, William Cunningham, George Smeaton, William Chalmers Burns, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, John Kennedy of Dingwall, John MacDonald of Ferintosh. That would be a treat.

I belong to St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was our first minister. Sometimes I lean against the wall and whimsically ask it, “What was it like in the 1830s and early 1840s?” Sitting here I might, at times, have been able to hear a minister with poetry in his soul — Horatius Bonar.

Undivided Service

Horatius Bonar was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Edinburgh in 1808 and died there in 1889. His father was a solicitor (attorney), but the Bonar family line gave many ministers to the Presbyterian Church — including his older brother John James, and the better-known younger brother Andrew.

Horatius Bonar’s life is simply told. Andrew Somerville, one of the close-knit “M’Cheyne Circle” of his student days, said, following his death:

He lived for the long space of eighty years maintaining a Christian and unblemished life in this world of sin, treachery, and unrighteousness. From the day of his conversion at an early season of life, he laid all the resources of his being at the feet of Jesus, consecrating his scholarship, his distinguished abilities, and all the energies of his nature, that he might undividedly serve on earth his heavenly Master.

Horatius (“Horace” to his friends) graduated from the University of Edinburgh, was an assistant minister in Leith (the city’s port), served faithfully from 1837 in the Scottish Borders town of Kelso, and then was called in 1866 to the new charge of Chalmers Memorial Church in Edinburgh (named after his great professor). Here he ministered until his death in 1889.

During his life he edited various Christian magazines, including The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy (he was deeply committed to premillennial eschatology), wrote many outstanding tracts (he had a great heart for pointing others to Christ), and a number of best-selling books (God’s Way of Peace and God’s Way of Holiness being perhaps the best known; they are still in print today). In 1843, at The Disruption, he was one of more than four hundred ministers who sacrificed their livings and manses in the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland.

Bonar requested that no biography of him should be written (although he himself wrote two biographies of others), and those who knew him best honored his request. But there is so much that could be written about his faithfulness in ministry, his friendships, and his fruitfulness. He experienced deep wounds during his life in the loss of five children; occasionally he was caught up in sharp controversy — on one occasion over his support for D.L. Moody, on another over the use of hymns (rather than only psalms, and in some instances, paraphrases) in public worship. To tell those stories would require a separate essay. But two features of his ministry tell us much about the man.

Let the Children Learn

The first is his work with young people. From the beginning, as a young assistant minister in Leith, he invested his energetic love in pointing young people to faith in Christ and finding ways of nurturing them in God’s grace. He loved them and was loved by them in return. “The children he met would often run up to him in the street, claiming a kind of property in him,” remembered a friend. One of those youngsters said about him,

I sometimes wonder if anyone else ever possessed the faculty that he had of drawing towards him the affection of young people, which, when you were once brought under the charm of his friendship, could never afterwards be lost or lessened. How well I remember his class for us girls! We would not for all the world have missed that hour on Wednesday afternoon.

I think I see the little room underneath the dear old church where we gathered, a bright, happy band of school-girls, sitting around to listen to his earnest, loving, faithful teaching. I see Dr. Bonar seated at the end of the long table with the large Bible spread out before him, the Bible hymn book in his hand, his dear handsome face beaming, and the pleasant smile which lighted it up, as some of us gave a fuller, clearer answer than he expected to the question asked.

And then the last meeting before the holidays; what a solemn hour it was, as he reminded us that never again here below should we all meet together, and spoke of the meeting-place above. All kneeling down, to be each tenderly commended to the loving care of our heavenly Father, bathed in tears, we could hardly tear ourselves away, lingering long after the usual time.

It is a great mark of grace, surely, when a minister of the gospel endears himself to youngsters in this way. For this was also a man who was no shrinking violet and was resolutely opposed to any distortions of the gospel.

Poetry in His Soul

It was originally for such youngsters that he began writing hymns. In total, he wrote around six hundred, which, of course, are not all of equal merit. But since his time, most hymn books — where they are still in use today — include a number of his compositions.

Bonar’s hymns are usually simple, but not simplistic; poetic and yet clearly theological; and the best of them focus on the person of the Lord Jesus, his atoning work, coming to him in faith, living unreservedly for him, and anticipating future glory.

In these hymns, the heart of the gospel is always found in Jesus Christ, at the cross, in substitutionary atonement. For him — as for Paul — this was a personal work of Christ, accomplished in love for us, on our behalf and in our place (“The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me,” Galatians 2:20). And while he wanted to express all this simply and memorably for young people, he did so in such a way that the oldest and most mature are deeply moved by the profundity of it all.

Here is “The Work That Saves”:

Done is the work that saves,
Once and forever done;
Finished the righteousness
That clothes the unrighteous one.

And this love, expressed at the cross, is an ongoing reality for the Christian:

The love that blesses us below
Is flowing freely to us now.

The sacrifice of Christ and its implications are vividly described with an economy of words that not only give clear articulation to biblical teaching, but also vividly bring the reality of the cross before our eyes, viewed through biblically-crafted lenses. Notice the visual and emotional power of the second and especially the third line of the next verse:

The sacrifice is o’er,
The veil is rent in twain,
The mercy-seat is red
With blood of victim slain.

Good Gospel Poetry

Bonar makes direct personal application so that we find ourselves as evangelists to one another as we sing:

Why stand ye then without, in fear?
The blood divine invites us near.

Other hymns with a similar focus, creatively reworked, come to mind, such as “The Substitute”:

I lay my sins on Jesus,
The spotless Lamb of God.
From all their guilt he frees us;
He bears himself the load.

I lay my want on Jesus,
All fulness dwells in him;
He heals all my diseases,
My soul he doth redeem.

I lay my griefs on Jesus,
He takes them all from me;
I cast my cares on Jesus,
My shield and tower is he.

I give myself to Jesus,
This weary soul of mine;
His right hand me embraces,
I on his breast recline.

This is not Milton or Shakespeare. Bonar himself used to say it “might be good gospel, but it was not good poetry.” Yet in terms of gospel communication, it is multum in parvo, much in a little: the purity of Christ our sacrifice, the heart of his work in substitution, the activity of faith, the fullness of Christ to save to the uttermost, to comfort and strengthen, the recognition that the Christian life is not easy (“This weary soul of mine”), the possibility of intimate fellowship with Christ, all punctuated by biblical allusions and in only four simple verses and less than ninety words.

Whole-Souled Hymns

Other, and better known, hymns come to mind. They too are characteristically full of biblical allusion and warm Reformed theology. Bonar wrote Colossians 3:16 Hymns which (1) cause the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, (2) are spiritual songs (in the sense that they are certainly in harmony with Spirit-given Scripture!), (3) give us ways of teaching and admonishing one another, and (4) help us to make melody to the Lord in our hearts. The lines may be simple, but they are never banal, and always develop a theme, make personal application, and lift the soul in praise to God.

“Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power,” based on Revelation 5, is a wonderful example of that last characteristic, as it brings us in a whole-souled way to share in the doxology of heaven. Others, such as “Not what I am, O Lord, but what thou art! That, that alone can be my soul’s true rest” illustrate Bonar’s ability to hold together the fundamental objectivity of the gospel with personal appropriation of it. A deeply experiential preacher and writer, he well recognized that to focus exclusively, or even predominantly, on the subjective can quickly leave us spiritually bankrupt, and yet at the same time he draws out the affections in worship.

Head, Heart, and Hands

All Horatius Bonar’s hymnody was poetry; but because he was a poetic soul, not all his poetry was hymnody. Indeed, he expressed his deepest feelings about everything in poetry. In “Lucy” (written in August 1858 on the death of a beloved daughter), he writes out his pain in the presence of the Lord:

All night we watched the ebbing life,
As if its flight to stay;
Till, as the dawn was coming up,
Our last hope passed away.

And then this heartrending contrast:

She was the music of our home,
A day that knew no night,
The fragrance of our garden-bower
A thing all smiles and light.

Here we get a glimpse of what added pathos to both his writing and his preaching (and what is surely an essential but sometimes absent characteristic of real preaching) — the marriage of logos (powerful biblical reasoning), with ethos (a life integrated with and illustrating the fruit of that biblical reasoning), bound up with pathos (the expression of affections and emotions that match and express the truth that is being proclaimed).

Lyrics Without Music

There is an important litmus test for what we sing: Does this hymn or song instruct me biblically and move me affectionately even when there is no musical accompaniment? If without the rhythms and melody of the accompanying music, the words of a song or hymn fail this test, it is likely that the music is moving me more than the gospel.

We do not, and probably should not, sing all of Bonar’s hymns today. But few if any modern hymnwriters surpass him in simplicity and gospel profundity, and it would be a sad loss to any church not to be familiar with at least a short catalog of his hymns. I think here of:

  • A few more years shall roll
  • All that I was, my sin, my guilt
  • Come, mighty Spirit, penetrate, this heart and soul of mine
  • Father, our children keep
  • For the bread and for the wine
  • Glory be to God the Father
  • Go, labor on; spend and be spent
  • He liveth long who liveth well
  • I hear the words of love
  • Into the heaven of heavens has he gone
  • No, not despairingly come I to thee
  • Not what I am O Lord, but what thou art
  • O love of God, how strong and true
  • These are the crowns that we shall wear
  • This is the day of fellowship and love
  • Thy way, not mine, O Lord
  • Thy works, not mine, O Christ

Who has not felt the tug of gospel truth in perhaps his most frequently sung hymn, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, Come unto me and rest”? Or who, having tasted communion with the Lord Jesus at the Lord’s Table, can doubt that their experience has been wonderfully described, and its meaning marvelously illumined, by his hymn “This do in remembrance of me”? In Scotland it has often been the custom to sing these three stanzas before the Supper is served:

Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face;
Here would I touch and handle things unseen,
Here grasp with firmer hand th’eternal grace;
And all my weariness upon thee lean.

Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with thee the royal wine of heav’n;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiv’n.

This is the hour of banquet and of song;
This is the heav’nly table spread for me:
Here let me feast, and feasting, still prolong
The brief, bright hour of fellowship with thee.

Then these verses following the enjoyment of the Supper:

Too soon we rise; the symbols disappear;
The feast, though not the love, is past and gone;
The bread and wine remove, but thou art here,
Nearer than ever, still my Shield and Sun.

I have no help but thine, nor do I need
Another arm save thine to lean upon:
It is enough, O Lord, enough indeed;
My strength is in thy might, thy might alone.

Mine is the sin, but thine the righteousness;
Mine is the guilt, but thine the cleansing blood;
Here is my robe, my refuge, and my peace:
Thy blood, thy righteousness, O Lord my God.

Feast after feast thus comes and passes by,
Yet, passing points to the glad feast above,
Giving sweet foretaste of the festal joy,
The Lamb’s great bridal feast of bliss and love.

Bonar’s hymns outlasted the fads and fashions of his day and continue to speak to ours. It is testimony to their worth that music-makers wed them to different tunes in order to sing them for the rising generation.

Still today we can rejoice that Horatius Bonar found a way of expressing his theology, poetry, and heart’s doxology in hymnody. And since we are commanded to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and make melody to the Lord in our hearts, perhaps we should be praying more than we do that God will raise up others like him today.

We still need pastors with poetry in their soul.

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.