During the opening ceremonies for the London Olympics, Scottish vocalist Emeli Sandé performed a stirring rendition of the classic hymn, “Abide With Me.” The hymn is often sung at Christian funerals, and this performance was dedicated to victims of a series of bombings in London in 2005, in which 52 people lost their lives.
Those familiar with the lyrics and the King James Bible may notice several striking similarities. Henry Francis Lyte, the author of the hymn, was certainly familiar with the King James Bible. “Abide With Me” arguably takes its inspiration from a passage in the gospel of Luke , in which disciples ask Christ: “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”
Many of the phrases in “Abide With Me” are close variations of passages in the King James translation. For example, “healing in Thy wings” is a variant of Malachi 4:2, and “Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?” is a variant of 1 Corinthians 15:55.
Other lines draw from Biblical imagery. The final verse of the song describes the evening shadows in a way that is very similiar to a description in Song of Songs: “Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether.” (Song, 2:17)
In the hymn, however, the coming of evening is an allegory for death:
“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”
Lyte wrote many religious poems and hymns throughout his life. As a student at Trinity College, Dublin, he won numerous prizes for poetry. “Abide With Me” is his best-known work, and was written shortly before his death from tuberculosis in 1847. The hymn is often performed to the music of “Eventide,” composed by William Henry Monk in 1861 to replace Lyte’s original tune.
Although the hymn has many somber associations, it has enjoyed many livlier uses in popular culture. “Abide with Me” has been sung at the Football Association Challenge Cup (FA Cup) finals in England every year since 1927. Jazz musician Thelonious Monk recorded an instrumental version of the hymn with John Coltrane in 1957, and soldiers during WWI created an irreverent parody of the lyrics, singing “We’ve had no beer, we’ve had no beer today.”
Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website and Family Guide. She is grateful for the excellent information from Hannibal Hamlin, one of the Manifold Greatness curators, on the history of “Abide With Me.”