Sweetly the holy hymn
Text. This hymn was written by the great preacher Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) for his congregational hymnal, Our Own Hymn-Book (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1866 | Fig. 1). As explained in his preface, Spurgeon set out to create his own compilation for several reasons, especially to remedy the challenge of asking worshipers to navigate hymn selections between John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, Comprehensive Ed. (1844) and Isaac Watts’ combined Psalms (1719) and Hymns (1707/9). He also used this opportunity to strengthen the availability of hymns on certain topics:
Hymns suitable for revivals, prayer meetings, and earnest addresses to sinners, are given in larger numbers and greater variety than in any other selection known to the editor, and several popular verses whose poetic merit had not commended them to previous compilers have been adopted in deference to the Great Spirit who has so frequently blessed the use of them both to saints and sinners.
“Sweetly the holy hymn,” at No. 974, begins the section devoted to Prayer Meetings. In its original form, it appeared in six stanzas of four lines, without music, headed “Early morning prayer meeting.”
The first stanza speaks of meeting early for prayer, “before the world with smoke is dim,” meaning before the soot of factories reached full bloom. The second stanza invokes the Holy Spirit to renew the soul like morning dew. The third asks for protection from spiritual warfare; the fourth appeals to nautical imagery to ask for God’s speed. The fifth and sixth look to Christ’s example in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42) to look for strength, “for we are very weak and frail,” so “We make the Saviour’s name our plea, and surely must prevail.”
Spurgeon scholar V. Erika Smith offered this overview of the hymn’s structure and message:
The believer makes four requests. First, in stanza two, for God to send His Spirit; second, in stanza three, for God’s sheltering shield to guard him from sin; third, in stanza four, for heavenly gales to speed him on the way; and fourth, in stanza six, to be heard in his weakness and frailty. The fourth request, in stanza six, is particularly poignant because Christ has been transformed from the Man of Sorrows in stanza five to the Savior in stanza six. Like Christ, the believer too experiences a transformation. He acknowledges his sole dependence on Christ and in his pleas invoke Christ’s name, as Savior, which will result in the prayer being answered. The believer can only approach God, expecting answers to prayer, because he has believed for redemption, and that faith is credited unto him as righteousness. God looks on the believer but sees Christ. Spurgeon’s theological premise for this example comes from Romans 3:23-25, Romans 4:5, and Romans 8:32.
Spurgeon printed an altered form of the first two stanzas in his Treasury of David, vol. 4 (1874), p. 134, beginning “Let prayer and holy hymn / Perfume the morning air.” This version took its cue from his commentary on Psalm 88:13. He incorporated the Psalmist’s plea into the second stanza: “Lament thy sins with tears / And ere the sun shines forth anew / Tell to the Lord thy fears.” This version was not incorporated into subsequent printings of Our Own Hymn-Book, so it seems to have been a creative variation on the official text. This version is not known to have been adopted into any other hymnals.
Spurgeon is known to have used several different tune books, including The Union Tune Book (1837, 1854), The Bristol Tune-Book (1864, 1881, 1891), Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861, 1868, 1875, 1889, etc.), The Congregational Psalmist (1858, 1860, 1872, 1879, etc.), The Psalmist (1835, 1863) and his own Tabernacle Tune Book (ca. 1869). He often indicated text/tune pairings in his manuscript sermon outlines, many of which remain uncatalogued at Spurgeon’s College in London. Tune documentation for this hymn has not yet been located. Nonetheless, one relatively late account identified Spurgeon’s preferred tune as WOOLWICH:
The tune set to this hymn [WOOLWICH] is the one Spurgeon always used at the famous mid-week prayer meetings, when one thousand of his members assembled for prayer. This he always said was the main cause for his soul-winning power as a preacher, and also the influence of his printed sermons.
This tune was composed by Charles Edward Kettle (1833–1895) and appeared in The Bristol Tune Book, Second Series (1881 | Fig. 3). The name comes from Kettle’s employment as organist at Trinity Church, Woolwich. The Bristol printing was set to “Come, Lord, and tarry not,” a hymn by Horatius Bonar (1808–1889).
The tune used in British Baptist collections, the Baptist Church Hymnal (1900, rev. 1933) and the Baptist Hymn Book (1962), was FRANCONIA. This tune was adapted by William Henry Havergal (1793–1870) for his Old Church Psalmody (1847 | Fig. 4), based on a German tune by Johann Balthasar König (1691–1758). Havergal’s version was first set to “To God in whom I trust,” a paraphrase of Psalm 25 from Tate & Brady’s New Version of the Psalms of David (1696, rev. 1698). The name FRANCONIA refers to the region in southern Germany where this tune was first printed. König’s tune originally appeared in Harmonischer Lieder-Schatz: oder Allgemeines Evangelisches Choral-Buch (Auf Kosten des Autoris, 1738 | Fig. 5) labeled “Was ist, das mich betrübt?” which is a text by Georg Wolfgang Wedel (1645–1721).
Havergal’s version of the tune reduces the original German melody from six phrases to four, and it is considered to be a masterful adaptation. Hymn scholar Robin Leaver offered this assessment:
Although Havergal’s omissions and alterations appear simple, the result is a skillful reworking of the original. Lines 3 and 5 of the original tune are omitted; the penultimate not of line 2 is eliminated; the new line 3 is extended from seven to eight syllables by making the penultimate half-note into two quarters; and the final line was recreated from the opening falling fifth of the original last line and the second half of the second line. It is a well-balanced tune that has understandably become one of the best known [Short Metre] tunes.
Hymnologist Carl Daw likewise praised Havergal’s work, saying, “His crafting is especially evident in the two quarter notes just before the dominant at the end of the third phrase and just before the tonic in the final one; these plateaus add grace and dignity to these respective cadences.”
FRANCONIA is also closely associated with “Blest are the pure in heart” by John Keble (1792–1866).
In the United States, the most common tune pairing has been with GREENWOOD, a tune by Joseph E. Sweetser (1817–1873) first printed in his Collection of Church Music (NY: John Wiley, 1849 | Fig. 6). In the original printing, it was set to “We lift our hearts to thee,” a text generally credited to John Wesley. Sweetser’s tune and Spurgeon’s text were paired as early as 1898 in Ira Sankey’s Church Hymns and Gospel Songs.
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
29 August 2019
Veeneenea Erika Smith, “Sweetly the holy hymn,” Dinna Forget Spurgeon: A Literary Biography (Case Western Reserve University, 2006), pp. 245-246.
H.J. Garland, “Spurgeon: Hymn-Writer,” Hymn Lovers’ Magazine (May-June 1950), p. 4.
Robin A. Leaver, “FRANCONIA,” Hymnal 1982 Companion, vol. 3B (NY: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994), no. 656.
Carl P. Daw Jr., “FRANCONIA,” Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), p. 50.
Johannes Zahn, Die Melodien der deutschen evangelischen Kirchenlieder, vol. 2 (1890), no. 2207.
Lester Hostetler, “GREENWOOD,” Handbook to the Mennonite Hymnary (Newton, KS: General Conference, 1949), p. 147.
J. Ithel Jones, et al., “Sweetly the holy hymn,” “FRANCONIA,” The Baptist Hymn Book Companion, rev. ed (London: Psalms and Hymns Trust, 1967), pp. 306-307, 383.
Wayne W. Hooper & Edward E. White, “WOOLWICH,” Companion to the Seventh Day Adventist Hymnal (1988), p. 476.
Veeneenea Erika Smith, “Sweetly the holy hymn,” Dinna Forget Spurgeon: A Literary Biography (Case Western Reserve University, 2006), pp. 244-252.