ONE of the great Victorian hymns was so popular in its day that reportedly the Church of England’s bishops got sick of it and begged the clergy to stop using it.
O Jesus I Have Promised was written by John Ernest Bode (1816-1874). He was born in London and educated at both Eton and Charterhouse, then Christ Church, Oxford, where he was the first winner of the Hertford Scholarship in 1835. He was ordained in 1841, and in 1847 became rector of Westwell, Oxfordshire. A high point in his life was an invitation to deliver the celebrated Bampton Lectures at Oxford in 1855. The lectures were later published as The Absence of Precision in the Formularies of the Church of England, scriptural and favourable to a State of Probation, an anti-Catholicism tract delivered in the face of rising success of Catholicism in England at the time. He wrote three volumes of poetry but was defeated for the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford in 1857 by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888).
In 1860 Bode moved to the parish of Castle Camps in Cambridgeshire. It was here that he wrote O Jesus I Have Promised for the confirmation service in 1866 of his two sons and daughter. The hymn was originally called O Jesus, We Have Promised and Bode told his children that the hymn included ‘all the important truths I want you to remember’.
It was published two years later as a leaflet by SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) entitled Hymn for the Newly Confirmed and later appeared in the second edition of the popular Hymns Ancient and Modern (1875). These are the words:
1) O Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end;
Be Thou forever near me, my Master and my Friend;
I shall not fear the battle if Thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway if Thou wilt be my Guide.
(2) O let me feel Thee near me! The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear;
My foes are ever near me, around me and within;
But Jesus, draw Thou nearer, and shield my soul from sin.
(3) O let me hear Thee speaking in accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion, the murmurs of self will.
O speak to reassure me, to hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen, Thou Guardian of my soul.
(4) O Jesus, Thou hast promised to all who follow Thee
That where Thou art in glory there shall Thy servant be.
And Jesus, I have promised to serve Thee to the end;
O give me grace to follow, my Master and my Friend.
(5) O let me see Thy footprints, and in them plant mine own;
My hope to follow duly is in Thy strength alone.
O guide me, call me, draw me, uphold me to the end;
And then in Heaven receive me, my Saviour and my Friend.
More than 50 years after its publication, composer and clergyman Percy Dearmer (co-editor with Ralph Vaughan Williams of the 1906 English Hymnal, which I have criticised because of its omission of many favourite hymns on the grounds of ‘sentimentality’) said that O Jesus I Have Promised was over-used. In his Songs of Praise Discussed (1933) wrote: ‘Bishops have been known to implore their clergy that this hymn should not be sung at all the Confirmations they attend.’
The tune which I first knew for this hymn is called Day of Rest, written by James William Elliott (1833-1915), who was a collector of nursery rhymes, writing some of the tunes that we know today (or at least we used to know). He learned his musical skills as a chorister at Leamington parish church, and later assisted Sir Arthur Sullivan with editing Church Hymns (1874).
Here is a recording by the Hudderesfield Choral Society:
I have to say I think Day of Rest is the best tune, but another good one is Thornbury by Basil Harwood (1859-1949), organist, musical editor of the 1908 Oxford Hymn Book and a prolific composer.
Here is his Magnificat & Nunc Dimittis in A flat, composed around 1890:
O Jesus I have Promised is sung to Thornbury here:
A third is Wolvercote by William Harold Ferguson, a clergyman and organist who was joint music editor of the 1919 Public School Hymn Book. It is sung here by Lincoln Minster School Chamber Choir.
Here is a lovely performance by brass band stars at the wedding of player Andi Cook, which I featured in a previous column.
Finally, I think this one may be more popular in America. It’s called Angel’s Story and it was written by Arthur Henry Mann (1850-1929). For 53 years he was the organist at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, where he founded the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1918.
Here is a performance at First United Methodist Church, Houston.
and here is a lovely Chinese version.
In 1888, Mann published his own edition of Thomas Tallis’s motet in 40 parts, Spem in alium. I don’t know whether this is Mann’s edition, but it’s a good chance to play this ethereal work, composed in about 1570 for eight choirs of five voices each.