Story Behind the Hymn
When this hymn was sung at the opening ceremonies of the London Summer Olympic Games of 2012 it reached number 44 in the UK and number 63 in Ireland’s top 100 charts. It was played at Ground Zero just ten days after the 9/11 attacks in New York and it is one of the songs played by the band as the British ocean liner, Titanic, went down. This is one of the most-loved English hymns, so much so that King George V requested it be sung at the original Football Association Cup Game in 1927. It has been sung at the FA Cup final about 15 minutes before kick-off ever since.
Henry Francis Lyte, a Scottish devoted, though sickly, minister penned the words to this hymn, a prayer that God would remain nearby in suffering and in death. Lyte frequently encountered loss in his 52 years on earth. When a young child his father abandoned his family; his mother died when he was only 9 years old. As a young man, he was at the bedside when a good friend of his died. As his friend lay on his deathbed, he cried out fervently, “Oh, abide with me; abide with me; abide with me!”
In 1815 Lyte became an Anglican minister and later a vicar at a church in a little fishing village at a seaside estate in Devonshire, England. He knew his life would be short due to poor health and tuberculosis. Every day he prayed that he might be able to produce something that would outlive him. Eventually sickness forced him to leave England and sail to Italy’s Riviera. Though his family discouraged him from preaching a goodbye message, Lyte replied with his familiar, “It is better to wear out than to rust out.” His text, Luke 24:29, Jesus’ post-resurrection walk to Emmaus where two disciples begged Him to abide with them. That evening he took a long, prayerful walk along the coastal trails. Inspired by the glimmering lights in the moonlight, he entered his room and one hour later, placed the words to this hymn in the hands of a well-loved relative. One week later he took sail for Italy. Two months after arriving in Italy, he died from a collapsed lung. This hymn was sung for the first time at his funeral.
There is some question about when this hymn was written. One theory is that upon leaving his friend’s bedside, he wrote it and gave a copy to the family of his now deceased friend. Another is that it was written after his farewell message in Devonshire. Either way, this has become one of the most popular hymns world-wide, often sung in the trenches during the First World War.