Henry Francis Lyte was born in Scotland in 1793. His father moved the family to Ireland; and then he abandoned them. When Henry was nine, his mother died, leaving him an orphan. The superintendent at the school he was attending invited Henry into his home and made him a part of his family. Henry was a brilliant student and a gifted writer. Already while in school he had won several prizes in poetry contests, and after graduating from the seminary became a successful pastor and an eloquent preacher.
But his faith in those early years seems to have been more a matter of the head than of the heart. As a young pastor, he had become friends with another pastor, Rev. Abraham Swanne. Swanne became terminally ill, and Lyte attempted to console his friend. But both of them, though pastors, found they were woefully inadequate to deal with the prospect of death. They found little comfort in the faith they had been proclaiming. However, together they searched the Scriptures, and both came to a deeper faith and a more solid hope. The dying man came to a true understanding of the promise of eternal life that was his in Christ, and soon went joyfully to be with his Lord. Of himself, Lyte later wrote: “I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and death with a different eye than before. I began to study my Bible and preach in a different manner than I had done previously.”
Lyte had good reason to think deeply on death. He himself was in poor health for much of his life, battling asthma and then tuberculosis. Despite his physical frailty, he worked hard and was greatly loved by his people, the humble fishermen and sailors of his parish in the seaside village of Lower Bixham, England. He was told by friends, by physicians, and by his family to take it easy and not wear himself out. He responded by coining what is now a well known phrase, saying, “It is better to wear out than to rust out.” And his spiritual fervor and hard work often did indeed wear him out. He was sometimes forced to spend the winter in a warmer climate in order to restore his health and strength.
Eventually Henry Lyte wore out completely. On Sept. 4th, 1847, he preached what was to be his last sermon to his congregation. It was again necessary for him to go to Italy for the warmer climate in the hopes of renewing his strength. But his respiratory difficulties that had plagued were now worse than ever. It had weakened him so much that just getting through the service left him exhausted. In his final words to his congregation that day he said, “It is my desire to induce you to prepare for that solemn hour of death which must come to all, by a timely appreciation for and dependence on the death of Christ.”
Later on that very same day he walked out on the grounds of his home on the seashore. It was a peaceful beautiful Sunday evening, and he gazed at the beautiful sunset. He strolled along thinking of the abiding presence of God and no doubt well aware of the fact that the sun was soon to set on his own life. Returning to his home, he shut himself up in his study for about an hour and when he came out he handed his family the hymn Abide With Me.
Shortly afterward, Henry departed for Italy. He never made it. On November 20, 1847 he died in a hotel room in Nice, France at the age of 54. His faith gave him hope and comfort at the end. His last words were “Peace! Joy!”
Lyte’s inspiration for this hymn came from Luke chapter 24, the story of the Lord’s appearance to two men on the road to Emmaus. In verse 29 the men who had been walking with Jesus say to him, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” The day of Henry Lyte’s life was indeed far spent for him, and he began his hymn with these words, “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide, the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.” Soon everything would be gone for him, and only God would be left; but therein was a solid hope: “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, Oh abide with me.” And then, “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day, earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away, change and decay in all around I see, Oh thou who changest not abide with me.” To someone facing death, or to someone facing the any of the other transitions of life, the song sings joyfully and confidently of the abiding presence of God.
Lyte had also written a tune for the poem, but that never caught on. The tune now used was written a few years later by William Monk while he himself was experiencing a time of personal sorrow.
When Henry Lyte died in 1847 he was little known beyond his humble seashore parish in England; but he is now remembered as the author of one of the world’s best loved hymns. It was, in fact, a life-long wish of his that he might leave behind a hymn like this. In an earlier poem he had voiced the longing that he might write, “some simple strain…, Some sparklet of the soul that still might live… when I was passed to clay… O Thou… grant me, swanlike, my last breath to spend, In a song that may not die!” God did grant him that prayer, and with what was nearly his last breaths, Henry Lyte was given the words to write this wonderful song which has indeed endured. The last two lines of the song are engraved on his gravestone: “Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee, In life in death, oh Lord, abide with me.”
Luke 24:28-29 — And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and Jesus made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” And he went in to tarry with them.
Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent. Abide with us, for the days are hastening on, and we hasten with them, and our life is short and transient as a dream. Abide with us, for we are weak and helpless, and if thou abide not with us, we perish by the way. Abide with us in the end of the day, in the end of our life, in the end of the world. Abide with us when there cometh over us the night of affliction and fear, the night of doubt and temptation, the night of bitter death. Abide with us and with all thy faithful, through time and eternity. Amen.
–From two prayers: A German Lutheran prayer and one by James Burns
ABIDE WITH ME by Henry Lyte
1. Abide with me; fast falls the eventide; the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
2. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away; change and decay in all around I see; O thou who changest not, abide with me.
3. I need thy presence every passing hour. What but thy grace can foil the tempter’s power? Who, like thyself, my guide and stay can be? Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
4. I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless; ills have no weight, and tears not bitterness. Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
5. Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes; shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
NOTE: Henry Lyte’s original version had three additional verses. This is the third of the three verses usually omitted:
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.