Morning and Evening – Hymns of John Keble
How many times have you sung Sun of my soul, Thou Saviour dear at an evening service? This has to be one of the loveliest of evening hymns in the hymnals of the English-speaking world. Not surprisingly, it was written by one of England’s best poets in one of the most intense and creative periods of hymn-writing in the history of the English church.
John Keble, the writer of this hymn, was an extraordinarily gifted man. He was born in 1792, the son of a long-serving clergyman in the parish of Fairford, in Gloucestershire. Like many clergy, his father was well-educated, and he decided to teach his son at home rather than send him away to school. John was so capable a student that he gained an open scholarship to Corpus Christi College at Oxford University at the age of fifteen. He finished his B.A. studies when only eighteen, gaining a double first in both Classics and Mathematics. His academic progress continued to be brilliant; but it was his desire to serve God with all his talents – and so he was ordained to the ministry five years later, in 1815 (the year of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo).
His Gift in Poetry
At first he helped his father in his large and scattered country parish; but a few years later Keble was appointed curate of East Leach and Burthorpe. It was during this period of curacy that he wrote a number of the poems that later became famous as hymns. (Poetry, in fact, was one of Keble’s great loves). One of these poems was written on November 25th 1820, inspired by the same text that moved Henry Lyte to write Abide with Me: Luke 24:29. We know parts of this poem as the hymn Sun of my soul. It was to become one of his best-known and most-loved hymns. Keble was an extraordinarily productive poet during these early years – so much so that his father and a number of his friends begged him to publish a collection of them for the benefit of the whole church. He finally agreed, and in 1827, when he was 35 years old, The Christian Year was published.
The Christian Year was an amazing success. Its popularity is perhaps hard for us to understand today – we simply couldn’t imagine a book of religious poetry becoming a best-seller! But in 19th century England (and beyond) it was. It became a household item in many a home. It went through 95 editions in his own lifetime, and another 13 came out in the year after his death. Some of its poems were memorised by those who loved them (Cecil Frances Alexander, writer of Once in Royal David’s City, knew all of them by heart). Once, when evangelical politician William Wilberforce and his four sons went on holiday together, they decided that each would bring a favourite book to read aloud to the rest. To their astonishment they found that every one of them had brought The Christian Year! However, Keble himself was always very diffident about this collection of his poems. To the end of his life he was uncomfortable when anyone mentioned it in his presence. To his close friends he seemed saddened, or dissatisfied with it. Those who knew him well did not put this down to a lack in the quality of the poetry; rather, they believed, it was due to the intensely personal way the poetry reveals the writer’s heart. Knowing this, Keble feared that those who loved the poems would think too well of him. He believed the picture revealed in the poetry was more spiritual than he was; and not true enough of him. As one close friend wrote, ‘Praise was at all times really painful to him.’1 Perhaps this is true of all authors of books on spiritual subjects: a Christian writer believes, truly, what he writes – though, being a sinful creature, he does not always consistently live what he writes.
Following the Church’s Liturgy
Keble’s purpose in The Christian Year was to encourage serious, earnest and heart-felt practical Christian living. He was a devoted Anglican, and loved the Prayer Book that Thomas Cranmer had written in the sixteenth century at the time of the Reformation and which had served the Church of England so well ever since. He wanted his book of poetry to encourage Christians in their faith in a way that was ‘in close harmony with, and in constant reference to, our liturgy.’2 In other words, he wanted to help his readers meditate in a godly way on all the themes of the Christian year as they were addressed, successively, in the Prayer Book. (In our context it would be a bit like someone writing a series of poems that dealt with the themes of each Lord’s Day in the Heidelberg Catechism.) So he included a poem for each Sunday of the year, poems for special festival days of the Anglican church, and one for morning prayer and evening prayer. The Church of England has a written service for morning and for evening; with prayers, Scripture readings and Psalms to be used in each service of worship. These are the standard services for Sunday, and have sometimes been used daily in parish churches. Keble’s two poems for morning and evening include the verses that have become perhaps his best-known hymns: New every morning and Sun of my soul. These are the two we will look more closely at later.
Sun of my soul, Thou Saviour dear,
It is not night if Thou be near:
O may no earth-born cloud arise
To hide Thee from Thy servant’s eyes.
When the soft dews of kindly sleep
My wearied eyelids gently steep,
Be my last thought, how sweet to rest
For ever on my Saviour’s breast.
Abide with me from morn till eve,
For without Thee I cannot live;
Abide with me when night is nigh,
For without Thee I dare not die.
If some poor wand’ring child of Thine
Have spurn’d to-day the voice Divine,
Now, LORD, the gracious work begin;
Let him no more lie down in sin.
Watch by the sick; enrich the poor
With blessings from Thy boundless store;
Be every mourner’s sleep to-night
Like infant’s slumbers, pure and light.
Come near and bless us when we wake,
Ere through the world our way we take;
Till in the ocean of Thy love
We lose ourselves in Heav’n above.
Keble was not to remain long as a country curate. In 1831 his prowess as a poet was recognised by his election as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He held this office with great distinction for nine years. During this time he became embroiled in the beginnings of a huge controversy in the Church of England. It all began in 1833, when Parliament passed legislation reducing the number of bishoprics in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. In response, Keble preached a sermon entitled ‘National Apostasy’ from the university pulpit at Oxford. He was protesting against what he perceived as an unwarranted infringement on the part of the civil authority on the sphere that rightly belonged to the Church. His sermon sparked a controversy that led to a number of like-minded clergy (including John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey and Richard Froude) waging a war of tracts against those whom they believed threatened the spiritual authority of the church. It led, in the end, to the development of a set of doctrines that emphasised the sacraments, an intercessory role of the clergy in individual believers’ lives, and an emphasis on beauty and ceremony in worship that was quite unbiblical. Some, like Newman, even became Roman Catholics as a logical conclusion of their thinking.
His Pastoral Ministry
But Keble, while sympathising with some of the fundamentals of these friends, stopped short of some of their excesses. In the later 1830s he returned to the pastoral ministry and settled in the parish of Hursley, where he served his congregation for over thirty years. For many in what became known as the High Church party (those who emphasised the role of the clergy, the sacraments, etc) Keble was the great model of what a country clergyman should be like: a quiet, hardworking, dignified, deeply spiritual man who served his people and conducted worship in a reverent and beautiful manner. Among his congregation was Charlotte Yonge, the author of immensely popular novels that depicted High church family life. She regarded herself as an illustrator or an exponent of the movement in novel form, and it is without doubt that her beloved pastor, John Keble, was the model for many of her clergyman characters. Keble did not marry until he was 44 (shortly after he went to Hursley). His wife, Charlotte Clarke, was an invalid most of her life, but she did all she could to help him in his parish work. He was indeed very hard-working. He led daily church services, he catechised all the older children; and on Wednesdays and Fridays children who attended day-schools came to the church to be instructed by him. He also prepared the young people individually for confirmation (we call that profession of faith). If the young people were unable to come to the church during the day, he would visit them at home in the evening. He taught them from the Scriptures (basically doing Bible study with them) and gave each candidate for confirmation a Bible from his own funds. He was a constant and regular visitor of his people in their homes. It is not hard to see why many saw him as a model pastor!
His Two most Well-known Hymns
And what of the two poems that he wrote for morning and evening devotions? Let us take a closer look at them, or at least, those verses of them that became well-known hymns. You will find them printed along with this article. The morning hymn, New every morning is the love, deals with God’s mercies, which are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-3). The very fact that we wake, and can get up and begin our day, proves that He loves us and keeps us safe. In the second stanza Keble’s words remind us that God’s daily mercies are many: they include safety from danger, His forgiveness of our recent sins, and the blessings of meditating on God and our future rest in heaven. The third and fourth verses deal with the routine tasks we do every day – and our attitude to them. This has particular relevance to those of us who are homemakers – and to many others of us who sometimes find our work tiresome, boring or frustrating. It makes all the difference, Keble writes, which way we view our work. If our minds ‘be set to hallow’ our labours – that is, treat them as God-given work, as our calling in life, and therefore worthwhile and special in His sight – then we will find joy and purpose in that work. And God will reward us for it and in it. We shall be found to be good and faithful servants when we come before Him in heaven. Our sacrifices, our denial of ourselves, will be blessed by God. They will bring us closer to Him as part of His sanctifying work in us. Rejoice in such work! In the final stanza these reflections on beginning the day are rounded off by a reminder that each day contains opportunities for being equipped more perfectly for an eternity in heaven. God is working out His purposes out in us, each day of our lives; and it should be our prayer that we might live every day in ways more pleasing to Him. This, through His boundless love, is possible! This is an excellent hymn with which to begin your day. Why not sing it with your morning devotions?
Keble’s evening hymn Sun of my soul is, I think, a really beautiful song of love to Christ. Its main focus is the great blessings we enjoy because we have Christ as our Saviour – blessings that enable us to sleep, in peace. Have you ever had trouble sleeping? Have you ever lain in your bed, distracted by worries, afraid of dying, perhaps? Have you ever been so burdened by sin that your mind will not shut down? Have you sometimes tossed and turned, troubled by the spiritual state of a loved one – perhaps a grown-up child – who has turned his back on Christ, and all he learned at church? Then this hymn is for you. Keble’s words in the first four stanzas remind us of the truths that comfort and encourage all who have such cares. These words, as we sing them, imprint in our hearts the reasons why we can sleep in peace.
Stanzas five, six and seven of this hymn as it appears in our own Psalter Hymnal (No. 472) are actually taken from a hymn written by Bishop Thomas Ken in the seventeenth century. Ken was a brave man who stood out for moral uprightness at the court of William of Orange (he was Princess Mary’s English chaplain there), and who once defied King Charles II by refusing to have Charles’s mistress stay in his house. He was a keen poet, like Keble; and it was Ken’s Poems for the Holy Days and Festivals of the Church that suggested to Keble the idea of arranging poems in the form of The Christian Year. In stanza six we pray, with Ken, that our rest will refresh and strengthen us for God’s service in the morning. Have you ever prayed that simple, yet important prayer? In Ken’s stanza seven we have a doxology of praise to all three persons of God. It is reminiscent of the last verse of Psalm 150, which commands that ‘everything that has breath’ praise God. And why? Because all blessings flow from Him. We often sing this hymn in evening worship; and that is so appropriate. Corporately, we can remind each other of the reasons we have to rejoice in Christ as the day comes to a close. But have you ever thought of singing it as you pray last thing at night; as you prepare to go to bed? Singing such reminders to yourself may give you the peaceful night’s sleep that so often eludes you. Singing such a prayer is a wonderful antidote to anxious thoughts (Philippians 4:6-9).
We can give thanks for the words of John Keble. We may not agree with all of his theology or view of the church; but these simple yet well-crafted hymns are full of devotional truth and consistent with the Scriptures. They have served God’s people well.
New every morning is the love
Our wakening and uprising prove;
Through sleep and darkness safely brought,
Restored to life, and power, and thought.
New mercies, each returning day,
Hover around us while we pray;
New perils past, new sins forgiven,
New thoughts of GOD, new hopes of Heav’n
If on our daily course our mind
Be set to hallow all we find,
New treasures still, of countless price,
GOD will provide for sacrifice.
The trivial round, the common task,
Will furnish all we need to ask,
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer GOD.
Only, O LORD, in Thy dear love
Fit us for perfect rest above;
And help us, this and every day,
To live more nearly as we pray.