Henry Francis Lyte – Abide with Me

“La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The girl with the flaxen hair)    C. Debussy (1682-1918)

“Abide With Me”


Henry Francis Lyte (1793–1847), vicar in the fishing village of Lower Brixham, Devonshire, England, ministered faithfully to his sea-faring people for twenty-three years.

Though of modest means, he and his wife Anne lived in an elegant estate called Berry Head — provided by King William IV who had reportedly been impressed by Henry’s ministry. Henry laid out walking trails through the estate’s forty-one acres and there he wrote most of his sermons, poems and hymns.

But Henry’s lung condition brooded over the home like a dark cloud. Brixham suffered damp winters, and in his early fifties Henry’s lung disorder deteriorated into tuberculosis. On September 4, 1847, 54 year old Henry entered his pulpit with difficulty and preached what was to be his last sermon. He had planned a therapeutic holiday in Italy. “I must put everything in order before I leave,” he said, “because I have no idea how long I will be away.”

That afternoon after a walk along the coast in prayer, he emerged from his study an hour later with a written copy of “Abide With Me”. Some accounts say he wrote the poem during that hour, others that he discovered in the bottom of his desk as he packed for his trip to Italy. Perhaps both are true — finding an old initial draft he revised and completed it that evening.

Shortly thereafter, Henry embraced his family a final time and departed for Italy. Stopping in Avignon, France, he again revised “Abide With Me” — it was evidently much on his mind — and mailed it to his wife. Arriving on the French Riviera, he checked in a hotel in Nice, and there on November 20, 1847 he succumbed. Another English clergyman, a Rev. Manning of Chichester who happened to be staying in the same hotel, attended him during his final hours. Henry’s last words were “Peace! Joy!”

When news of his death reached Brixham, the fishermen of the village asked Henry’s son-in-law, also a minister, to hold a memorial service. It was on this occasion that “Abide With Me” was first sung.