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Horatius Bonar

by John Brownlie

Horatius BonarHis Life.—Horatius Bonar gave instructions that no memoir of himself should be written, perhaps endeavouring to fulfil his own aspiration:—

My name and my place and my tomb all forgotten,
The brief race of time well and patiently run,
So let me pass away, peacefully, silently,
Only remembered by what I have done.

In consequence of this, any notice of him must be comparatively slight.

He was born in Edinburgh on December 19, 1808. His father, James Bonar, was Second Solicitor of Excise for Scotland; he was an elder in the session of the congregation founded at Edinburgh by Lady Glenorchy, but connected with the Church of Scotland. Cheerful, sagacious, devout, and consistent, he spent a blameless life in the pursuits of business, philanthropy, and study. Horatius Bonar's mother, Marjory Maitland, won esteem and affection from all around by her childlike faith, her gentleness of spirit, and her overflowing kindliness; at her death, on August 29, 1854, he wrote the poem beginning:—

Past all pain for ever,
 Done with sickness now,
Let me close thine eyes, mother,
  Let me smooth thy brow.
Rest and health and gladness,
  These thy portion now;
Let me press thy hand, mother.
  Let me kiss thy brow.

Among other things besides parental influence which must have aided in awakening his spiritual life were these:—the preaching of Thomas Snell Jones, educated at Trevecca, and afterwards minister of Lady Glenorchy's chapel; the sudden death of his father in 1821; the singularly happy death of a sister in 1822; the watchful guidance of his eldest brother, James, a man of original character and sterling worth, who filled a parent's place from the time of his father's death; and the companionship of his older brother, John, and of his younger brother, Andrew.

He was educated at the High School of Edinburgh, where, in common with his brothers, he was thoroughly grounded in classical learning. From the High School he went to the University, and while in the classes of Divinity received from Dr. Chalmers, the Professor of Divinity, a lasting impulse to the proclamation of Divine love in all its gracious simplicity; and from Edward Irving, who visited Edinburgh about that time, an impulse to the study of prophecy which never exhausted itself.

After being licensed he became missionary-assistant to the Rev. James Lewis, of the South Parish, Leith. In 1837 he was called to and ordained minister of the North Parish, Kelso. In 1843 he with his brothers and most of his ministerial friends left the Church of Scotland and became ministers of the Free Church of Scotland.

In Kelso he proved himself to be indeed 'an ambassador for Christ,' 'a worker together with Him.' He devoted himself first of all to the oversight of his own parish, but laboured also far and wide throughout the Borderland.

The beauty of that district and its many associations, poetic and historic, insensibly affected him, and enriched him with visions of Nature under countless aspects, 'with thoughts too deep for tears'; we know this from many allusions in his poems, as well as from a touching reference in the fragment which closed his literary labours.

But Kelso gave him another gift; it gave him, notwithstanding his pastoral diligence, leisure for study. And well he employed that leisure, industrious above most, missing few opportunities of learning and few opportunities of writing.

In 1853 he was made Doctor in Divinity by the University of Aberdeen.

In 1855-6 a journey to Egypt and Palestine, less common then than now, interrupted the quiet tenor of his course. He went to the East believing that its days of glory lie in the future; and his imagination caught a glimpse of that glory. He returned from the East with his interest in Scripture, and particularly in prophecy, deepened, to pursue with redoubled energy those inquiries which bear on sacred lands.

But 'here have we no continuing city.' In 1866 he was called to the ministry of a congregation newly formed in Edinburgh. Towards the end of that year the 'Chalmers' Memorial Church,' built by his congregation, was opened for public worship, and in this church he laboured during the rest of his life. In 1883 he was Moderator of Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland. On April 5, 1888, his ministerial jubilee was celebrated; and, to use Charles Wesley's dying words, 'in age and feebleness extreme,' he then appeared for the last time in public.

After this, days and nights of weariness were his lot; but at length he passed away in sleep, entering his heavenly home on July 31, 1889.

His Equipment.—Intellectually vigorous, sensitive to every impression, with a keen and lively humour, musing much, Horatius Bonar possessed also the creative or constructive power essential to a poet.

He was a catholic scholar, widely read in the classics, in the Fathers, in the literature of his own profession, and in books of his own day. But in regard to them his conservative taste, if not a trace of caprice, made him jealous of authors whose fame threatened to obscure that of his old favourites.

Had he been asked abruptly if he were a Calvinist, he would have answered abruptly that he was, and might have added a sharply-defined statement of his theological belief. But in fact the truths which ruled his life, which formed the staple of his preaching, and which became the main source of his poems, were these—the exceeding love of God to man in Christ Jesus; the blessedness of immediate and restful confidence in that love; the necessary fruit of such confidence in a holy life; the value of the Sacraments as the means and occasions of the closest communion with God; and the prospect of our Lord's return as the proper hope of the Church.

His Work: His Preaching.—The tone and modulation of his voice, peculiarly his own, were refined, winning, and impressive; his manner was perhaps too solemn and too deliberate, yet it was pervaded with tenderness. The material of his discourses was plain, but the fabric was gracefully woven. Some disliked his preaching for its spirituality, some for its lack of embellishment, some because its language of conviction occasionally passed into the language of dogmatic assertion. But to multitudes it was the very message of life, and many remain who dwell lovingly on his services, especially at the table of the Lord, when he used to break the silence of expectancy with words of peace and joy and hope which seemed to descend from the throne of grace itself.

His Books.—Of his books this is not the place to speak. Many of them were temporary in fact if not in purpose; some have run a longer course; a few, we may believe, will discharge a mission for years to come. We name some representative volumes: Believe and Live, 1839; The Night of Weeping, 1846; Prophetical Landmarks, 1847; The New Jerusalem, a Hymn of the Olden Time, edited with Preface and Notes, 1852; The Desert of Sinai, 1857; The Land of Promise, 1858; God's Way of Peace, 1862, translated into French, German, and Gaelic; The Catechisms of the Scottish Reformation, edited with Preface and Notes.

His Hymns.—Dr. Bonar's hymns will, with a few exceptions, be found in these works: Hymns of Faith and Hope, three series, 1857, 1861, 1866; The Song of the New Creation, 1872; Hymns of the Nativity, 1879; Communion Hymns, 1881; Until the Day Break, 1890. From one or other of these the hymns which are noted below have been selected for The Church Hymnary; but No. 245 was taken from a Supplement to Psalms and Hymns for Use in the Baptist Denomination:—

 10. Glory be to God the Father.
112. The Church has waited long.
126. Light of the world! for ever, ever shining.
172. I heard the voice of Jesus say.
173. Not what these hands have done.
190. No! not despairingly.
194. I lay my sins on Jesus.
206. O love that casts out fear.
225. Calm me, my God, and keep me calm.
245. Beloved, let us love: love is of God.
264. Go, labour on: spend and be spent.
285. Thy way, not mine, O Lord.
305. A few more years shall roll.
393. When the weary, seeking rest.
402. Father, our children keep.
415. Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face.
420. For the bread and for the wine.
508. Great Ruler of the land and sea.

Dr. Bonar confessed that he could give little information concerning the circumstances amid which his hymns were written, or even concerning the times when they were written. But we know that they were the spontaneous, 'inevitable' expression of his thoughts and feelings during great part of his life; and we know that round many of them associations of surpassing interest began to gather from the very first.

Dr. Bonar, it must be acknowledged, wrote greatly too many hymns. He was often negligent of rhyme and rhythm. He seldom removed even obvious blemishes from his hymns after they were in type.

Like other poets, moreover, he speaks with peculiar intimacy of sympathy, and peculiar precision of phrase to his own generation...

He is the principal hymn-writer of Scotland; he ranks with the principal hymn-writers of England—with Watts, with Wesley, with Heber, with Keble; and the hymns of few hymn-writers are so widely employed on both sides of the Atlantic at the present time as are those by him.

We start with these facts; we ask, What are the qualities which have given Dr. Bonar such a position? and we answer:—

His hymns are poetic. Seldom inspired by merely external circumstances, never inspired by Church system or by Church calendar, the best of them glow with tender emotion kindled by the contemplation of spiritual truth, or by the phases of spiritual life. They are wrought in obedience to the dictates of unobtrusive culture. They are coloured with the hues of Nature. They are brightened by the play of gentle fancy. They are developed from one theme. They are shaped into unity of form.

They are childlike. They are written by one who has been 'born from above'; by one of whom it might be said:—

The common sun, the air, the skies,
To him are opening Paradise;

by one who has 'lost himself' in the love of his Father, and will not waste a thought on freaks of experience or subtleties of style.

They are manly—never gushing, never mawkish, never striking a false note in the way of sentiment. They are written by one who calmly encounters the facts of life; by one who cheerfully accepts his calling as a servant and a soldier of the Lord; by one who is willing to 'spend and be spent' for Him.

They are hopeful. They are written by one who sustains himself with the assurance that, in no selfish sense, all things are working together for good; by one whose thoughts are ever turning to the dawn of an eternal day; by one who associates the fulfilment of his prospects with the advent and reign of our Lord; by one who values the Sacrament of the Supper as the sign and seal of present and of final bliss.

They are sympathetic—sympathetic in variety of tone, sometimes reflective, sometimes plaintive, sometimes cheerful, sometimes exultant; sympathetic also in aim, written by one of like passions with ourselves, by one whom life has tried and tested, by one who is eager to encourage and to strengthen his fellows 'by the comfort wherewith he has been comforted of God.'

These are some of the qualities which distinguish Dr. Bonar's hymns; these are some of the qualities which have made them a cherished manual of devotion, and a treasury of song; these are some of the qualities which lead us to believe that many of his hymns will be prized by the Church of Christ during many days to come.


Copied for WholesomeWords.org from The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church Hymnary by John Brownlie. London: Henry Frowde, [1899?].

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