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Home News The Midweek Hymn: Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

The Midweek Hymn: Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!

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THIS hymn was written specifically for Trinity Sunday, which is the first Sunday after Pentecost, which in turn is 50 days after Easter Sunday. It seems a shame not to give it an airing more often than once a year, and in any case I have had a request for it.

The words are by Reginald Heber (1783-1826), who was born in Malpas, Cheshire, where his father was rector. The family were wealthy landowners and their estate included the parish of Hodnet in Shropshire. It is said that the age of five, Reginald had read the Bible so thoroughly that he could give chapter and verse for chance quotations and had translated a Latin classic into English verse by the time he was seven. He entered Brasenose College, Oxford, at 17, and won two awards for his poetry during his time there. He took his bachelor’s degree in the summer of 1804 and was elected to a fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford.

From 1805 to 1806 he and his school friend John Thornton went on an extended tour of Europe, which included a 500-mile journey by sledge from St Petersburg to Moscow in the middle of winter. Returning to England Heber prepared for Holy Orders at Oxford and was ordained in 1807. He took over the family living at Hodnet and two years later married Amelia Shipley, daughter of the Dean of St Asaph in North Wales. She found the Hodnet rectory too small, so Heber had it demolished and rebuilt.

He served in Hodnet for 16 years, being a much-loved combination of parson and squire. He frequently contributed works to the Quarterly Review and edited the works of the 17th-century cleric Jeremy Taylor in three volumes. In 1812 he published a small volume of poetry and began work on a dictionary of the Bible.

At this time the Anglican authorities frowned on the singing in churches of hymns other than metrical psalms, and Heber was one of the first High Church Anglicans to write hymns. He wrote a total of 57 while at Hodnet. He was preparing a book of his hymns when he was appointed Bishop of Calcutta and departed for India with his wife and baby daughter (their first daughter had died in infancy) in 1823.

According to his wife’s later account: ‘The parish of Hodnet grieved truly and deeply at losing their beloved pastor, and rich and poor subscribed to give him a parting gift, as a testimonial of their love and gratitude.’

The See of Calcutta was vast, covering much of the Indian subcontinent and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), together with Australia and parts of southern Africa. It had been vacant for a year when Heber arrived, and there was much to catch up on. One concern was Bishop’s College, a training school for local clergy founded by Heber’s predecessor in 1820. Heber reinvigorated the project and in June 1824 ordained as deacon the first native Indian to receive Holy Orders.

A few days later Heber set out on a tour of Northern India with his chaplain Martin Stowe and the Archdeacon of Calcutta, Daniel Corrie. His wife remained in Calcutta, having recently given birth to their third daughter. Within weeks Stowe fell ill and died, but Heber and Corrie pressed on, taking in Ceylon as an afterthought. The tour lasted 16 months. On his return he wrote a series of detailed reports on his findings, and strongly criticising the East India Company’s stewardship of its Indian territories. He was concerned that few Indians were promoted to senior posts, and noted the ‘bullying, insolent manner’ towards Indians typically adopted by the British. Among his other tasks was preparing a Hindustani dictionary.

Heber set out again on 30 January 1826, this time heading south. On April 1 he arrived in Trichinopoly (now Tiruchirappalli) in the state of Tamil Nadu and next day he confirmed 42 people. On April 3 he attended an early morning service and gave a blessing in Tamil. On his return to the bungalow where he was staying, his wife wrote: ‘He retired into his own room, and according to his invariable custom, wrote on the back of the address on Confirmation ‘Trichinopoly, April 3, 1826.’ This was his last act, for immediately on taking off his clothes, he went into a large cold bath, where he had bathed the two preceding mornings, but which was now the destined agent of his removal to Paradise. Half an hour after, his servant, alarmed at his long absence, entered the room and found him a lifeless corpse.’

He was 43 years old. His funeral was held the next day at St John’s Church, where he had preached his final sermon; he was buried in the church.

It took four months for reports of Heber’s death to reach England, and funds were opened for memorials. A grand marble sculpture was placed in St Paul’s Cathedral, and more modest memorials were raised in the parish churches at Hodnet and Malpas.

The year after his death, in 1827, Heber’s book of hymns was published as Hymns Written and Adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. A three-volume biography and letters collection by his widow was published in 1830.

The opening line of Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty! references Isaiah 6:3, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ and Revelation 4:8, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, Who was and is and is to come!’

Here are the words:

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and Mighty!
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore Thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before Thee,
Which wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide Thee,
Though the eye of sinful man Thy glory may not see:
Only Thou art holy, there is none beside Thee,
Perfect in power in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise Thy name in earth, and sky, and sea;
Holy, Holy, Holy! merciful and mighty,
God in Three Persons, blessed Trinity!

The tune was composed for the hymn in 1861 by John Bacchus Dykes, the English clergyman responsible for many great hymn tunes including Melita (Eternal Father Strong to Save),  Dominus Regit Me (The King of Love My Shepherd Isand Horbury (Nearer, my God, to Thee). 

He called the tune Nicaea after the First Council of Nicaea which formalised the doctrine of the Trinity in AD 325.

In a 2019 ‘tournament’ by the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, Holy, Holy, Holy! was chosen as the greatest hymn of all time.

Here it is sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Here is a lovely brass band arrangement:

Bing Crosby included it in his 1951 album Beloved Hymns:

And finally, a more modern interpretation by Anthem Lights.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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