Mighty God, while angels bless Thee
Text: Origins. This hymn by Robert Robinson (1735–1790) was first published in the supplement appended to the third edition of Caleb Evans and John Ash’s Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship (Bristol, 1778 | Fig. 1), in nine stanzas of five lines (or four lines and a hallelujah refrain), without music.
Fig. 1. Caleb Evans & John Ash, A Collection of Hymns Adapted to Public Worship (Bristol, 1778).
According to Josiah Miller, in his Singers and Songs of the Church (1869), p. 267, this hymn was listed in Robert Robinson’s manuscript catalog (once in the possession of his biographer William Robinson), with the description, “A Christmas hymn, set to music by Dr. Randall, and, with the notes, engraven on a copper-plate half-sheet. It begins, ‘Mighty God, while angels bless Thee,’ &c. (1774).” This broadsheet version is not known to have survived in any modern collection.
Joseph Belcher, in his book Historical Sketches of Hymns, Their Writers, and Their Influence (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1859), p. 231, gave this story, apparently delivered to him personally by Benjamin Williams:
“Mighty God, while angels bless Thee” was composed for the use of the late excellent Benjamin Williams, Esq., for many years senior deacon of the First Baptist Church at Beading, England—a man of great influence and usefulness. When a little boy, Benjamin sat on Robinson’s knee while he wrote this hymn, who, after having read it to him, placed it in his hand. Well do we remember the deep feeling with which the venerable man described to us the scene as we sat with him at his own fireside.
Williams’ obituary in The Baptist Magazine, vol. 39 (Feb. 1847), p. 106, placed his date of birth at 1770 or 1771 and his death at 1 Dec. 1846, which would have made him about the right age to be sitting on someone’s knee in 1774. It is possible, or perhaps more likely, that Robinson had already written the hymn for his own purposes and merely copied it down in front of Williams at a later date.
This hymn is sometimes published starting with the second stanza, “Lord of every land and nation.”
Tunes. The original broadsheet with Randall’s tune, described by Josiah Miller, has not survived, but this hymn did appear several years later with a tune credited to Randall in John Rippon’s Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (1792 | Fig. 2). In Rippon’s collection, it was called LEWES. The designation “Hy 132 I.R.S.” stands for Hymn 132 in Rippon’s Selection of Hymns (1787), which is Robinson’s text. The melody is in the middle voice.
In modern hymnals, Robinson’s text is frequently paired with a tune called AUTUMN, by François Barthélemon (1741–1808). The tune is adapted from Barthélemon’s piece Durandarte and Belerma: A Pathetic Scotch Ballad (1797 | WorldCat), a musical setting of text from the novel The Monk (1796) by M.G. Lewis (see vol. 1, pp. 146-149: PDF). This was reprinted in Benjamin Carr’s Musical Journal, vol. 3, no. 63 (ca. 1801–1802 | Fig. 4), where it was dubbed “A Spanish Ballad,” which explains why some hymnals credit this tune as a Spanish melody.
Fig. 4. Benjamin Carr’s Musical Journal, vol. 3, no. 63 (ca. 1801–1802).
The transition of AUTUMN from ballad to hymn tune is unclear, but it started appearing in hymnals by the mid 1800s. Its connection to Robinson’s text is also unclear, but it can be found as early as 1868 in Charles Robinson’s Songs for the Sanctuary (1868 | Hymnary.org).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
9 September 2018
Hymn Tune Index:
“Mighty God, while angels bless Thee,” Hymnary.org:
“Mighty God, while angels bless Thee,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology: