Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed
Text: Origins. This hymn by Harriet Auber (1773–1862) was first published in her collection The Spirit of the Psalms (London: T. Cadell, 1829 | Fig. 1), in seven stanzas of four lines, without music, intended for Whitsunday (Pentecost). It is sometimes regarded as not only one of Auber’s finest hymns, but among the finest of hymns on the Holy Spirit. In describing the intersection of popularity and fidelity in the realm of hymns about the Holy Sprit, Erik Routley once expressed, “If we seek to combine true universal popularity with a certain amount of direct statement about our Lord the Spirit, our choice must surely fall on ‘Our blest Redeemer.’”
An interesting story surrounds the conception of the hymn. Accounts of this hymn being scratched into a window by Harriet Auber date at least to the 1880s, as in the following:
I happened to pay a visit some nine years since to old Daniel Sedgwick’s out-of-the-way shop of hymn-literature, and while there met the late Rev. Dawson Campbell of Ware, Herts, an ardent lover of hymns, who, like myself, had gone to the little shop in Sun Street in search of hymn-books. In the course of an interesting conversation he told me that he had for some time occupied the house at Hoddesdon, Herts, in which Harriet Auber had formerly lived. She had written her beautiful hymn, “Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed / His tender, last farewell,” on a pane of glass in one of the windows with a diamond; and when Mr. Campbell came into possession the pane was still intact. Anxious to have it as a curiosity specially interesting to him, he asked permission of the landlord to remove the pane and put another in its place; but the landlord declined. And so, up to that time—seventeen years after the author’s death [in 1862]—the valuable MS. of this sweet hymn remained in its old place.
A similar version of Campbell’s account was given in Joseph Duncan’s Popular Hymns: Their Authors and Teaching, along with a corroborating account by C.W. Lock of Hoddesdon:
I remember the house well in which Miss Auber used to live, and where she died. A lady resident here, whose relations lived in Miss Auber’s house, after the decease of the hymnist, tells me that she often saw the hymn on the pane of glass in the bedroom window, but that after her friends left Hoddesdon, the pane was removed by some person, and has never been recovered, no trace of it being ever found.
Another report was given in a history of Hoddesdon in 1908 (including a transposed age and date of death; she died in 1862, age 89):
On part of the site of this old manor place, and opposite the Church, stands a house once occupied by Miss Harriet Auber, of some repute as a writer of hymns much used at Spurgeon’s Tabernacle. She died in 1869, aged 82, and was buried in the churchyard opposite. Some lines of her hymn, “Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed,” were scratched on a pane of glass in a window at the back of her house, but this was removed after her death. General Hassard, promoter of the use of carrier pigeons in the Army, subsequently occupied the house.
The editors of the Irish Companion to Church Hymnal (2005) noted a contradictory account:
There used to be a legendary story that the author scratched the words of this hymn with her diamond ring on a window-pane in her house in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, because she did not have a pen ready to hand. Such a fanciful tale has been strongly denied by her great-niece, Harriet J. Harvey. In a letter to The Times in 1929 she pointed out that Harriet Auber’s manuscripts were then in her possession and “Our blest Redeemer” was originally part of a longer poem in a sequence of three called Creation, Redemption, Sanctification.
An article in the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, July 1942, offered a further denial of the window pane story, along with more information about the manuscripts:
Recently there was presented to the Library of St. Albans Cathedral—Hoddesdon being in the diocese of St. Albans—a volume of poems by Miss Auber, in her own handwriting. There the hymn appears as the latter part of a longer work on the spiritual history of a man, divided thus: Creation, the Fall, Redemption, Sanctification, Glorification. Some correspondence of the Auber family was at the same time presented to the Cathedral Library, and from this it appears that the tory of the window-writing was quite unknown to the family, and to visitors to the house in Miss Auber’s lifetime.
As of March 2019, the library at St. Albans Cathedral was unable to locate these manuscripts or find any record of them, suggesting they might have been lost or stolen long before any of the present staff were hired.
Text: Analysis. The first stanza is an allusion to John 14:16-17, in which Christ promised to send another helper/comforter, the Holy Spirit. The second stanza refers to the appearance of the Spirit like a dove, as in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32). The third describes the day of Pentecost, especially the tongues of fire and the rushing wind of Acts 2:1-4. The rest is more generalized and speaks of other characteristics of the work of the Spirit. While the third stanza presents the Spirit in tongues and fire, the following two offer a complementary perspective, a Spirit who is sweet, gracious, and gentle. The Spirit’s “sweet influence” can be seen, for example, in the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23); “that gentle voice” could be a harkening to the “still small voice” (whisper) of 1 Kings 19:12. We understand the Spirit to be indwelling through Scriptures such as Ezekiel 36:26 and 2 Corinthians 1:22.
The meter of the text, 220.127.116.11, is somewhat unique. Its resemblance to common meter (18.104.22.168) has led some hymnal editors to try to extend the last line of each stanza to six syllables, much to the chagrin of John Julian, who remarked, “In Spurgeon’s O.O.H.B. [Our Own Hymn Book], 1866, and some American collections, the text is tortured into C.M.”
This hymn is sometimes printed with a concluding doxology, not by Auber.
Tunes. The most commonly used tune with this text is ST. CUTHBERT by John B. Dykes (1823–1876), written for and paired with this text in Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861 | Fig. 2). Dykes’ name and the tune name were not given on the page but were listed in the index. The editors of the Irish Companion to Church Hymnal (2005) said of it:
ST. CUTHBERT by J.B. Dykes is not one of the composer’s more inspiring tunes, although it remains immensely popular. … Dykes was Precentor of Durham Cathedral, which contains the tomb of St. Cuthbert.
Alternative tunes for Auber’s text include ESSEX, composed by Gustav Holst (1874–1934) for the Public School Hymn Book (1919 | Fig. 3), and WICKLOW, adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) from an Irish folk tune in P.W. Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music (1909), No. 296 (“My own dear Colleen Dhas,” Archive.org), first printed as a hymn tune in the Enlarged Edition of Songs of Praise (1931 | Fig. 4), No. 182, then adopted into subsequent editions of the English Hymnal (1933, etc).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
27 February 2019
Erik Routley, “The Holy Spirit—II: His Work,” Hymns and the Faith (London: John Murray, 1955), p. 214.
R.E. Welsh & F.G. Edwards, Romance of Psalter and Hymnal (NY: James Pott & Co., 1889), p. 265: Archive.org; see also E.R. Pitman, Lady Hymn Writers (London: T. Nelson & Sons, 1892), p. 142 (Archive.org), in which the source of this story is said to be Andrew Carter, first printed in the British Messenger.
Joseph Duncan, Popular Hymns: Their Authors and Teaching, 5th ed. (London: Skeffington & Son, n.d.), p. 121: Archive.org
J.A. Tregelles, A History of Hoddesdon in the County of Hertfordshire (Hertford: Stephen Austin & Sons, 1908), p. 133: Google Books
Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “Our great Redeemer, as he breathed,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), pp. 430-431.
“Our blest Redeemer,” Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Bulletin, no. 20 (July 1942), pp. 5-6.
John Julian, “Our blest Redeemer ere he breathed,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 874: Google Books
Frederic M. Bird, “Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed,” Songs of the Spirit: Hymns of Praise and Prayer (NY: Anson D.F. Randolph, 1871), p. 141: Archive.org
Percy Dearmer, “Our blest Redeemer, ere he breathed,” Songs of Praise Discussed (Oxford: University Press, 1933), pp. 113-114.
James Moffatt & Millar Patrick, “Our blest redeemer, ere he breathed,” Handbook to the Church Hymnary (Oxford: University Press, 1935), pp. 66-67.
Maurice Frost, “Our blest Redeemer, ere he breathed,” Historical Companion to Hymns Ancient & Modern (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1962), pp. 270-271.
Frank Colquhoun, “Our blest redeemer, ere he breathed,” Hymns That Live (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1980), pp. 139-145.
Richard Watson & Kenneth Trickett, “Our blest Redeemer, ere he breathed,” Companion to Hymns and Psalms (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1988), p. 205.
J.R. Watson, “Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
“Our blest Redeemer, ere He breathed,” Hymnary.org: