Horatius Bonar Wrote Hymns His Church Would Not Sing

Horatius Bonar was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on December 19, 1808. from a long line of Presbyterian ministers. His brother Andrew Bonar was a famous Bible commentator. Horatius and his brothers studied at the University of Edinburgh under Thomas Chalmers, and took part in “the Great Disruption” in 1843 that led to the founding of the Free Church of Scotland.

He was ordained in 1838 and pastored North Parish, Kelso for 28 years, before moving to Edinburgh.

Known as the greatest of Scottish hymn-writers, Bonar was also, at one time, Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, editor of The Border Watch, and minister for 23 years at Chalmers Memorial Church, Edinburgh.

He also wrote many best-selling books including, “The Night Of Weeping”, “God’s Way of Peace” and “God’s Way of Holiness”.

After his studies he began mission work among the illiterate and underprivileged youth in Leith. At that time the Church of Scotland only sang metrical psalms and rejected hymn singing, but the children needed something happy and simple to engage their interest. Bonar met the need by writing over 600 hymns, which were never sung in his church, due to the exclusive commitment to psalmody.

Bonar’s aim of reaching the hearts of children gave his hymns and books a simplicity and sweet devotional reality which is an endearing charm of his work.

His interest in Bible prophecy was stimulated through hearing Rev. Edward Irving lecture on the subject in 1829. With his two brothers and a few others, Bonar met regularly to study the advent of hope. “A certain stigma, as of heresy, was fastened on (their pre-millennial views) – they were regarded within God’s heritage as speckled birds” (Memories of H. Bonar, page 47).

A new magazine was published, Quarterly Journal of Prophecy, with Bonar as editor.

His brother, Rev. John James Bonar, tells us “from the time that Dr Bonar accepted this mode of prophetic interpretation as taught by Irving, it dominated and complexioned all his views” (H. Bonar, A Memorial, page 99).

But it is his contribution to hymnody for which he is best remembered. In 1846 he penned:
I heard the voice of Jesus say:
“Come unto Me and rest” …
… written for the children in his Sunday-School.

“Go labour on, spend and be spent” is another of his hymns still sung today. And the moving communion hymn likewise … “Here, O my Lord, I see Thee face to face” …

A copy of Hymns of Faith and Hope, by H. Bonar, contains over 150 of his hymns, and was published in 1869.

Bonar’s wife, Jane, also wrote hymns. Five of their children died in their youth.

Bonar died on July 31, 1889.

This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com

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