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Home News The Midweek Hymn: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

The Midweek Hymn: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

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I HAD not heard of this hymn and when I came across it in a list, the title intrigued me. I looked it up and this is what I found.

In 1871 the renowned American evangelist Rev Dwight L Moody (1837-1899) was preaching a sermon which he illustrated with a true story about a great storm on the vast Lake Erie. A ship was approaching the safety of the harbour of Cleveland, Ohio, with a pilot on board. There was a lighthouse on one side, and it was the keeper’s additional responsibility to light and tend a line of smaller oil lanterns to guide ships into the channel toward the harbour. Despite the great lighthouse beacon, a ship would be dashed to pieces on the rocks without the little lights to lead it through the narrow, rock-lined passage. On this occasion, either the keeper had failed to light the lanterns or they had blown out in the wind.

As the tempest grew into roaring mountains of turbulent waves and screaming winds, the captain tensed beside the wheel of his ship. It was being steered by the elderly pilot, straining his eyes into the ominous blackness. Underneath, the ship heaved and creaked, and the wooden decks were slippery with water. The captain squinted into the darkness. ‘Are you sure this is Cleveland?’ he asked the pilot. ‘Quite sure, sir,’ replied the pilot, his hands clamped fast upon the wheel. ‘But where are the lower lights?’ ‘They are out, sir.’ ‘Can you make it?’ ‘We must, sir, or we’ll perish.’ There was nothing else they could do. Desperately, the pilot tried to find his way without the lights that should have been there, but in the darkness he missed the channel, the ship struck rocks, and in the stormy waters many lives were lost.

Then Moody made his appeal to his audience: ‘Brothers, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse! Let us keep the lower lights burning!’

Hymn-writer Philip Bliss, who was directing the music at the service, listened intently to Moody’s sermon. He told a friend afterwards, ‘When I heard Mr Moody use it as an illustration in his sermon that night, I cried out in my heart, “Bliss, you are just as guilty as the man in the story. As a Christian, you are to be one of the lower lights shining brightly so that some poor soul tossed about on the sea of life may find safety and everlasting life in the haven that God has prepared”.’ Within a week he had written the words and music of the hymn, which is also known by its first line. Here are the words:

1 Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Refrain:
Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

2 Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore. [Refrain]

3 Trim your feeble lamp, my brother!
Some poor sailor tempest tossed,
Trying now to make the harbour,
In the darkness may be lost. [Refrain]

I wrote here about Philip Bliss (1838-1876), who wrote the melody for the wonderful hymn It is Well With My Soul.

He was born in a log cabin in Pennsylvania. He loved music and had a passion for singing. He had little formal education and was taught by his mother from the Bible. At the age of 11, he left home to make his own living, working in timber camps and sawmills, and was converted at a revival meeting at 12. While working, he irregularly went to school to further his education.

When he was 18, in 1856, he became a schoolmaster at Hartsville, New York, and during the summer he worked on a farm.

In 1857, he started formal singing training, became a music teacher and began composing. He traded his first composition for a flute, and none was ever copyrighted.

In 1859 he married Lucy Young. She came from a musical family and encouraged the development of his talent. She was a Presbyterian, and Bliss joined her church.

At age 22, in 1860 Bliss became an itinerant music teacher, travelling on horseback from community to community. In 1864 the Blisses moved to Chicago, and the next year Philip started working for Root and Cady Musical Publishers, at a salary of $150 per month. He conducted musical conventions, singing schools and concerts for his employers. He continued to compose hymns, which were often printed in his employer’s books.

In 1869, Bliss formed an association with Dwight L Moody, and as reported above it was while he was directing the music at one of Moody’s meetings that he heard the tale of the lighthouse and the shipwreck. In 1873 Bliss gave up his job to concentrate on full-time Christian evangelism and from 1874 he travelled with preacher Major D W Whittle and led the music at revival meetings. By this time he was well known in America.

In my earlier article I wrote: ‘On December 29, 1876, Bliss, then aged 38, and his wife Lucy were passengers on the Pacific Express train, hauled by two locomotives, in north-eastern Ohio. In deep snow the train was crossing the Ashtabula river when the bridge collapsed. The lead locomotive made it across the bridge, but the second locomotive and the 11 carriages plunged 76ft (23m) into the water. The wooden carriages were set alight by their heating stoves and lamps, and soon the wreckage became an inferno. Bliss escaped, but returned to try to rescue his wife. No trace of either body was discovered. Ninety-two of the 159 passengers died. The Blisses were survived by their two sons, aged four and one.’

I don’t think the hymn is well known in Britain but from the number of versions on YouTube it is very popular in America, and it was hard to make a choice. However I will start with a British performance by the Mevagissey Male Voice choir in Cornwall, with seagull accompaniment.

You cannot go wrong with Tennessee Ernie Ford.

I was surprised to find this version by the Andrews Sisters.

I like this version by Judy Henry and Jack.

And here it gets the boogie-woogie treatment.

I love these vintage recordings; this one is from 1910 by Harry Anthony and James F Harrison.

Finally, the incomparable Michael Eldridge. There are numerous performers doing these multiple screen versions but to my mind no one else comes close. Watch for the dog making a surprise appearance near the end.

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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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