Alfred Midlane was born on the Isle of Wight, off the coast of England, on January 23, 1825. His father died three months before he was born.
His godly mother took him to the St. James Congregational Chapel where one of the Sunday School teachers attained a place of significant influence in young Alfred’s life.
Speaking of his mother’s devotion to God, Midlane wrote, “How often from the cares of the family would the dear mother lead me into a quiet room; and there kneeling by my side would she, with holy fervour, by prayer bring God into all her circumstances down here; or by sweet communion be with God above them all”.
Midlane became a businessman in Newport, Isle of Wight, for 50 years, first working as a printer … then entering the hardware business, as an ironmonger.
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We are told that he was writing religious verse at the age of nine, under the encouragement of his favourite Sunday School teacher. Midlane’s first hymn was written when he was 17 years of age (1842); and from then on a steady stream of hymns (he is credited in one place with 1,100 hymns) and poems issued from his pen. He also wrote some prose.
Many of Midlane’s hymns were written with children in mind and used in Sunday Schools. His hymns have also been effective in mission and revival meetings.
Midlane came to a firm conviction of his salvation at a Sunday School teacher’s meeting. He was subsequently baptised by immersion at Castlehold Baptist Church, Newport. When he was 23 he left the Baptists to associate with the Brethren where he continued his enthusiasm for Sunday School work.
His abiding interest in Sunday School activities can be appreciated from the following verse:
What useful institution stands
Where only love doth rule,
Where every good desire expands?
— The Sunday School.
Midlane married Miriam Grainger on March 20th, 1851. The union produced two sons and one daughter.
He compiled two books of his hymns for young people, the second containing 323 of his own compositions. This may be a unique achievement in itself.
Midlane also composed hymns for adults, and the second of two compilations which he published at age 80, contained 278 of his own hymns.
Midlane’s biographer tells us “he never took out a copyright for any of his hymns, and never derived any monetary benefit from them” (Who Wrote our Hymns, by C. Knapp, page 201).
A curious story is told concerning the writing of what is probably his most well-known composition, There’s a Friend for Little Children. He had mused over it during his strenuous day of toil, and that evening, February 7, 1859, when the family retired, he set to work to commit it to paper. Time stole on and early next morning “his wife found him ‘unconscious’ (or asleep?) over his finished work”:
There’s a Friend for little children
Above the bright blue sky,
A Friend that never changes,
Whose love will never die …
That song proved to be so popular that he received so much mail expressing appreciation for it that he felt burdened by the response. It is the only children’s song to have been accorded its own Jubilee, being celebrated around the English speaking world on February 7, 1909.
The song has been sung in China, Japan, India, all over Europe, America, Africa, Australasia and in unlikely parts of the world, having been translated into more than fifty languages.
Another well-known Gospel song from his pen is –
Revive Thy work, O Lord,
Thy mighty arm make bare …
Midlane wrote most of his hymns while on twilight walks around the ancient and historic ruins of Carisbrooke Castle, which encouraged his “deep and uninterrupted meditation”, from which the lines of his hymns would spring.
Lord Tennyson lived but 11 miles from Midlane and the two poets maintained mutual friendship.
It has been said of Midlane’s hymns that “They are full of spiritual thought, careful in their wording, and often very pleasing without reaching the highest form of poetical excellence. A marked feature of these hymns is the constant and happy use of Scripture phraseology.”
Midlane expressed concern that his writings fulfil the Apostle Paul’s instruction, “let all things be done unto edification”.
He has been described as the “poet preacher of the ‘Strict Brethren’” (Methodist Hymn Book, Illustrated, by J. Telford, page 447). He was also known for his generosity.
Albert Midlane died on Februray 20, 1909. His wife survived him by another 5 years.
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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