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Katherine Hankey, 1834-1911

by Norman Mable

Katherine HankeyTell me the old, old story.

Many years ago a great religious revival took place in an Irish town where an old preacher lay dying. A brother minister called to convey the good news to the venerable pastor. Being a much younger man than the invalid, the visitor was at a loss how to keep up the conversation and confessed as much to the older man. 'Tell me the old, old story' replied he faintly. 'Tell me the old, old story and nothing else.'

Such is believed to be the conception of one of the most popular hymns in the world. Whether Miss Hankey ever heard the anecdote, I cannot say, but the incident is not referred to in an account of the writing of the hymn kindly given to me by the author's niece, Miss Agnes E. Rashdall. A letter recently received from her contains such interesting information about the hymn and its author, that I cannot do better than quote it in full.

'I think probably few people in these days would know that the hymn was originally written as the introduction to a tiny booklet in verse, published in, or about, 1868, under the title, 'The Old, Old Story', the eight verses of the hymn having the heading, "The Story Wanted", and the remainder, "The Story Told," ' [Some ten months elapsed between the writing of the first and second parts.]

'It gives in very simple form the story of Redemption, starting with the Garden of Eden, going on to the Nativity and the announcement to the shepherds of the fulfillment of the promise; the kind of life lived by our Lord, His character, His death and His Resurrection; and, finally, the personal message to ourselves.

'The little book seemed just to meet a need of the time, and for a great many years had a very remarkable circulation' (It is even now not actually out of print, but is still issued by Longman's as a penny booklet). It was also translated into several European languages, and into others used in mission fields of Asia and Africa. Miss Hankey herself wrote music for it, but the tune usually used now for the hymn is not hers.

'Miss Hankey wrote a number of other hymns, mostly not intended or suited for congregational use, though one or two are to be found in some hymn books; and she also published a book called "Bible-class Teachings", now out of print.

'She was always warmly interested in religious teaching and when quite young herself, gathered together a Bible class of business young women; going round to the shops, under her mother's escort, to give personal invitations. It was much appreciated, and some of its members became life-long friends, and themselves undertook Christian work. It was probably her varied experiences in teaching which specially helped her to put the deepest religious truths into the very simple language of "The Old, Old Story".

'Kate Hankey's life was an uneventful one, and there is little to record. Her father, Thomas Hankey, was a banker, and in her early years lived at Coombe House, near Croydon; but later on her home was always in London. She was one of a large family, and had a religious upbringing, Mr. Hankey being a member of the Evangelical group which people used to call the "Clapham Sect". And at her boarding school she came under the influence of Mr. Vaughan, of Brighton, whose teaching of young people was a marked feature of his ministry.

'After the move to London she always associated herself with the work of the parish in which she was living, and for several years worked under the Rev. G. H. Wilkinson afterwards Bishop of Truro who became a much valued pastor and friend.

'Owing to home ties, her life was a very quiet one, and the specially marked incident in it was a voyage to South Africa to bring home an invalid brother. The long journey alone up-country was at that time somewhat of an adventure for one with very little experience of travel; and the kind help of clergy and missionaries to whom she had introductions, and all that she learnt of their work, led to her taking for the rest of her life a keen interest in foreign mission work.

'She died in 1911, at the age of seventy-seven.'

How the present tune came to be composed is also most interesting.

A copy of the hymn was acquired by Major General Russell, an officer particularly well known at that time for the unfortunate part he had recently been compelled to take in quelling riots in Ireland. Shortly after this regrettable affair the General attended an international Convention of the Y.M.C.A., held in Montreal. At one of the meetings General Russell, before a huge audience, read Miss Hankey's newly-published hymn, which caused a profound impression.

Dr. W. H. Doane, the well-known American composer of the tune to 'Rescue the perishing', and many another popular hymn, happened to be present, and was so deeply moved, that he obtained a copy of the words from the General. Afterwards, while travelling in a stage-coach in the White Mountains, he wrote the music to which the hymn was sung for the first time in the parlour of Crawford House.

Dr. Doane altered the arrangement of the original four-lined verses into eight-lined stanzas and added the chorus. Miss Hankey was displeased with this form, for, she stated, each verse is complete in itself. But as the new setting had become so extraordinarily popular, no obstacle was raised to its continuance.

From Popular Hymns and Their Writers by Norman Mable. 2nd ed. London: Independent Press, Ltd., 1951.

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