Coincidentally: Hearing Secret Harmonies

The Civil War was raging, and a Confederate sentry heard the sound of a voice coming from marshland behind enemy lines—or so the story goes. The sentry aimed his rifle at a Union soldier who was singing. The tune was possibly John Bacchus Dykes’s Hillingside, first published in 1861 but already quite well-known. More likely, it was Martyn, a tune that had been composed on horseback in 1834 by a music teacher named (coincidentally if we consider the marshland provenance of the Union soldier’s voice), Simeon Buckley Marsh.

Whatever the tune, its text was Charles Wesley’s hymn Jesus, Lover of My Soul. And just as the Confederate sentry was cocking his gun, his target blithely began the lines from the hymn: “Cover my defenseless head / With the shadow of Thy wings’ The two men’s eyes met, the gun was lowered, the parlous moment passed, and each soldier went his way. After the war, the now- former Confederate sentry heard the same voice singing the same hymn on a Potomac River steamer—for the Union soldier was now a preacher leading a revival meeting on deck. The two veterans embraced and joy festooned their peace. This was one of those harmonious coincidences that gives a particularly lush timbre to the history of hymnody.

Consider the undoubted coincidence of the last day in the life of Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), author of the hymns Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven and Abide With Me. A Celt of eclectic erudition, Lyte was born in Scotland and studied at Trinity College, Dublin, thrice receiving the English poetry prize there. Hymn- writing took up no small part of his tenure as a perpetual curate of Lower Brixham in Devon, where one of his pupils at the vicarage school was the future Lord Robert Salisbury, British prime minister from 1885 to 1886 and from later in 1886 to 1892. Tubercular, Lyte sought relief on the French Riviera and died in a hotel in Nice on November 20, 1847, the very day that the Mexican government decided to discuss peace with the United States so as to end the Mexican War. As Lyte prepared to die in a Catholic country, he prayed for the ministrations of a clergyman of the Church of England, and he blessed providence upon learning that there was one staying in his hotel. So the archdeacon of Chichester gave Lyte the ministration of the dying according to the rites of the Church of England as he recited for his last time his own verse: “Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes.”

It was not a rare coincidence to find an English archdeacon choosing the Riviera for his retreat, but it was ironic that the particular archdeacon who ministered to Lyte happened to be Henry Edward Manning, who later converted to Catholicism and became, as cardinal, the only prince of the Roman Church to be buried with his late wife’s Book of Common Prayer.

Lyte’s hymn Abide With Me attained worldwide popularity partly through its promotion by the contralto Dame Clara Butt, who sang it for the last time in 1936, the year of her death and the golden anniversary year of Salisbury’s resumption of his office as prime minister.

In another coincidence, Rev. John Monsell’s parish of Guildford in England was strapped for cash. To raise money for roof repairs on his Church of St. Nicholas, Monsell wrote a hymn that included this nervous stanza:

Dear body, thou and I must part;

Thy busy head, thy throbbing heart

Must cease to work, must cease to play

For me at no far distant day.

It was just the sort of hymn that sold back then like hotcakes, and enough money was raised for the roof. Monsell climbed a ladder to inspect the repairs, fell off, and fatally parted from his body. The tragedy occurred on August 9, 1875, to the very day the 25th anniversary of the approval of the boundary between Texas and New Mexico, winding up the Mexican War at last.

Another vicar, Rev. John Ellerton of Barnes, wrote the evening hymn The Day Thou Gayest, Lord, Is Ended. Queen Victoria commanded that it be sung at her Diamond Jubilee service in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1897, when Edward White Benson, archbishop of Canterbury and father of the minor hymnographer Robert Hugh Benson, accommodated those who wanted him to wear a mitre and those who did not by the compromise of a small gold cap.

Victoria much admired her own Prince Albert’s spiritual anthems. On October 21, 1998, the Albert Memorial was unveiled after a restoration costing $18.7 million dollars, the 1, 8, and 7 adding up to the same sum as that of the 1, 6, and 9 of the 169 statues on the memorial’s lower frieze. And perhaps no more coincidentally than the daily rising and setting of the sun, Ellerton’s hymn, sung at the Jubilee apogee of the British Empire, was also sung 100 years later in 1997, at the final ceremony marking Hong Kong’s return to the Chinese, a milestone of the empire’s end.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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