Sweet hour of prayer

with SWEET HOUR

Fig. 1. New York Observer, vol. 23, no. 37 (13 Sept. 1845), front page.

Text: Origins. The story behind this beloved hymn of prayer begins with a newspaper article published on the front page of the New York Observer, 9 Sept. 1843 (Fig. 1), unsigned, describing a man named W.W. Walford, a blind preacher in Coleshill, Warwickshire, England, who wrote poems and committed them to memory:

On one occasion, paying him a visit, he repeated two or three pieces which he had composed, and having no friend at home to commit them to paper, he had laid them up in the storehouse within. “How will this do?” asked he, as he repeated the following lines, with a complacent smile touched with some slight lines of fear lest he should subject himself to criticism. I rapidly copied the lines with my pencil, as he uttered them, and send them for insertion in the Observer if you should think them worthy of preservation.

The poem “Sweet hour of prayer” was given in four stanzas of eight lines. The most extensive vetting of this story was performed by William J. Reynolds in the 1950s and early 1960s and published in Hymns of Our Faith (1964), pp. 186-188. Reynolds identified the writer of the article as Thomas Salmon (1800–1854), who had been a pastor in Coleshill before migrating to the U.S. in 1842. The identification of the poetic preacher, on the other hand, has proven troublesome. A public librarian was unable to find anyone by the name of Walford in the poll books and directories of Warwickshire, and a vicar was unable to find the name in church registers of the time.

Reynolds’ sources evidently did not search census records, because the 1841 census of England and Wales contains the names of several William Walfords in Warwickshire. One William Walford, a male approximately 50 years of age, was living in Tardebigg, 45 km Southwest of Coleshill. This census record does not support the description of Walford having “no friend at home,” because it lists him with three other family members and possibly some boarders. Another William Walford lived in Solihull, only 15 km from Coleshill, age 40, with a mother Ann, 80, in the household of a family of Franks. Another lived in Aston, 17 km away, age 40; another in Wooten Wawen, 32 km away, age 45. Parish registers show a William Walford who married a Catharine Blick on 27 Sept. 1846 in Birmingham, 18 km from Coleshill. At the very least, surviving records show this to be a fairly common name in the area, even if they don’t immediately reveal the W.W. Walford mentioned here.

Some scholars have attempted to connect Walford’s name with the Rev. William Walford (1772–1850), a Congregational minister in Homerton, some 200 km from Coleshill. This connection is based almost entirely on the latter Walford’s authorship of a book called The Manner of Prayer (1836 | Archive.org). The greatest barrier, however, to this connection is the existence of The Autobiography of the Rev. William Walford (1851 | HathiTrust), in which this Walford is not ever described as being blind, nor a poet. This connection should be ignored as an improbable strain of the imagination. The true author of “Sweet hour of prayer” is yet to be identified.


 

This poem’s first appearance in a hymnal was in Conference Hymns (1849 | Fig. 2), edited by John Dowling, minus the second stanza, without music, and credited to “Walford, the Blind Preacher.” In this instance, “D.L.M.” stands for Double Long Meter (8 lines of 8 syllables). Aside from the omission of stanza 2, the text was unaltered from its appearance in the New York Observer.

 

Fig. 2. Conference Hymns, ed. John Dowling (NY: Edward H. Fletcher, 1849).

 

Tune. The most widely used tune, which has become nearly inseparable from this text, was published by William Bradbury (1816–1868) in Bradbury’s Anthem Book (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1860 | Fig. 3), in four parts, melody in the tenor part. Bradbury’s version includes some changes to the text, especially in the last stanza, starting with “I view my home and take my flight.” These changes are often repeated in modern hymnals. Notice especially the asterisk at the top of the page, and the credit at the bottom to Musical Tracts, indicating Bradbury had borrowed or adapted this tune from another source. This source has not yet been properly identified. Bradbury did not credit the author of the text.

Fig. 3. Bradbury’s Anthem Book (Boston: Oliver Ditson & Co., 1860).

 

In a curious turn of events, Bradbury took full credit for the tune in the Golden Chain of Sabbath School Melodies (NY: Ivison, Phinney & Co., 1861 | Fig. 4). As with the 1860 printing, Bradbury did not credit the source of the text. This version of the music features the cantional style of harmonization with the melody in the soprano part.

 

Fig. 4. Golden Chain of Sabbath School Melodies (NY: Ivison, Phinney & Co., 1861).

 

This score has a unique tempo marking in the upper left corner, which Bradbury explained in the preface to his collection:

The effect of a stirring, popular piece of music is often lost by a misconception of the movement intended for it by the author. To effectually avoid such misconception, a very simple method has been adopted, by which the proper movement of each piece is exactly indicated, without the use of a metronome. It will be observed that directions, partly in figures are given to the different pieces at their beginning, as “24—Two to the measure,” &c, &c. The meaning of which is:

Take a string and attach a light weight to one end of it, and hold the other between the thumb and finger at a distance of twenty-four inches, from the fulcrum (the thumb and finger). Set the weight in motion, oscillating, like the pendulum to the clock, and now these two vibrations mark the time of a measure of the music. This then is the explanation—“string twenty-four inches long, two vibrations to the measure.”

Bradbury’s tune is usually named SWEET HOUR.

Analysis. The first stanza echoes the sentiments expressed in Psalm 18:6, with David taking his petitions to the throne of God: “In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears” (ESV; paralleled in 2 Sam. 22:7). The author’s claim in which he has “oft escaped the tempter’s snare,” recalls a line in the Lord’s Prayer (“lead us not into temptation”).

The original second stanza begins with an intense desire, together with others, for the opportunity to spend time in prayer. Acts 2:42 records how believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The author of the hymn also mentions “the place where God my Savior shows his face.” Where is this place? In the Old Testament, this would refer to the Holiest of Holies, the innermost part of the temple. Among New Testament believers, this might be understood to mean a church prayer meeting, but it could also mean a prayer closet (“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,” Matthew 6:6), or anywhere two or more believers are gathered (Matthew 18:20).

The third stanza speaks of the author’s petitions being borne on the wings of prayer. The Bible equates a believer’s rising prayer with the smoke of incense, as in Psalm 141:2 (“Let my prayer be counted as incense before you”) or Revelation 8:3-4 (“And another angel … was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints … and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God”). The hymn writer then says, “I’ll cast on him my every care,” a direct reference to 1 Peter 5:7 (“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you,” NIV).

The final stanza speaks of prayer as being a source of consolation (Philippians 4:6-7). The writer pictures Moses upon Mount Pisgah (also called Mount Nebo, Deuteronomy 34:1) at the end of his life, gazing toward the Promised Land, and leaving the earth having lived a life devoted to prayer.

Musically, the melody moves stepwise in a rising and falling shape, with a climactic third phrase. The melody is framed by the upper and lower tonic. This easy movement gives the music an accessible quality, while the climax lends a sense of urgency. Together, words and melody combine to form one of the most beloved and enduring hymns of prayer.

by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
27 August 2019


Related Resources:

Robert Guy McCutchan, “Sweet hour of prayer,” Our Hymnody, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1942), p. 329.

William J. Reynolds, “Sweet hour of prayer,” Hymns of Our Faith (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1964), pp. 186-188.

C. Paulette Moore, “Sweet hour of prayer,” The Worshiping Church: Worship Leaders’ Edition (Carol Stream, IL: Hope, 1991), no. 623.

Carlton R. Young, “Sweet hour of prayer,” Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), pp. 611-612.

Robert Cottrill, “Sweet hour of prayer,” WordWise Hymns (18 April 2012):
https://wordwisehymns.com/2012/04/18/sweet-hour-of-prayer/

“Sweet hour of prayer,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/sweet_hour_of_prayer_sweet_hour_of_pray