This is the day that … Henry Francis Lyte preached his last sermon. Three books give the date as the 4th, but the biography states it was the 5th. Certainly it was the first Sunday in September, in 1857.
Born in Scotland 64 years previously, 1 June, 1793, Lyte began life in an unhappy home. The father was a Captain in the Royal Marines, engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. While Henry was just a lad his father abandoned the marriage, leaving “a destitute wife.” Henry was at a boarding school. His mother and brother died soon after, leaving Henry an orphan at age 9. He deeply felt the loss of his mother who had taught him to pray and to love the Bible.
Under the care of the kindly Dr Robert Burrows, Lyte blossomed in a handsome man, six feet tall and excelling above his fellow students. He abandoned his plans medical studies and chose Divinity.
He became a Church of Ireland clergyman and during the early days of his first pastorate found himself trying to comfort a dying fellow minister.
“My blood almost curdled,” writes Lyte, “to hear the dying man declare and prove (from the Scriptures) that he and I had been utterly mistaken in the means we had adopted for ourselves and taught to others. The teachings of St Paul reveal the false basis of our means of salvation…” (H.F. Lyte, by H. Garland, page 23). Lyte continues: “The poor man died, I rejoice to say, under the belief that although he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his sins and fit him to spend Eternity in the presence of God.”
All of which led to Lyte’s conversion also, and to an evangelical emphasis in his preaching. Then, as Lyte carried the load of two parishes his health failed and he was advised to seek warmer climate than England afforded.
Returning from France and Italy, where he convalesced over his lung trouble, he took a parish in Cornwall where he met Miss Anne Maxwell. They wed in Bath, 21 January, 1818. Theirs was a happy marriage and Anne’s economy as a home manager greatly assisted them.
Lyte was musical and composed many songs, including sea shanties for the sailors in his sea-side parish. He produced a metrical version of psalms and many hymns for church use including “Praise my soul the King of Heaven“, “God of Mercy God of Grace”, “Sweet is the solemn voice that calls The Christian to the House of Prayer”, “Pleasant are thy courts above” and many others.
He was hard working and diligent in his parish, literary and tutorial duties, which led to a further collapse of his health in his 40’s, necessitating trips to the Continent to recuperate. His faithful wife enabled them to save the money and also held the home front while he was away through the winters.
He pastored two churches following his marriage, the latter being for 23 years at Lower Brixham, Devon. It was here he preached his last sermon – and on the same evening handed his newly written hymn to his daughter.
“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide …”
It was prophetic, as well he probably knew, for “life’s little day” was soon to “pass away.”
A trip to the Continent for health reasons was too late. He died on his way to Nice on 20 November, 1847.
Among his dying words were these, “Oh, there is nothing terrible in death; Jesus Christ stepped down into the grave before me…”
His final hymn was first performed at his memorial service in England. “Abide With Me” became an enduring favourite and is recorded as King George V’s favourite hymn.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.