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The Midweek Hymn: To Be a Pilgrim


AFTER A Carol a Day in the run-up to Christmas, we are starting the New Year with a new series, The Midweek Hymn.

My opening choice is To Be a Pilgrim, because it was the school hymn at my girls’ grammar in the 60s. We had a daily assembly first thing in the morning with prayers, two or three hymns and a reading from the Bible. I wonder how many state schools do this now? This hymn was sung at the beginning and end of the school year, and even now brings back floods of memories in the way that only music can.

The words are by the Puritan writer and preacher John Bunyan and appeared in Part 2 of The Pilgrim’s Progress, written in 1684.

Bunyan was born in 1628 to a tinker and his wife in Elstow, near Bedford. He had some basic schooling and learned his father’s trade, which entailed travelling round mending pots and pans, and in the early stages of the English Civil War enlisted in the Parliamentary Army. He was then about 16. By his own account he was ‘the very ringleader of all the Youth that kept me company, in all manner of vice and ungodliness’.

He spent about three years in the Army then returned to Elstow. Two years later he married. His wife’s name is not recorded but she was pious. At this stage Bunyan began to rethink his path in life and after a few years wrestling with his conscience and his beliefs he joined the nonconformist Bedford Free Church. He began preaching in the church and to groups in the surrounding countryside.

In 1660 the monarchy was restored and the freedom to preach outside the Church of England was curtailed. Bunyan was arrested and jailed for three months in 1661 under an obscure law which made it an offence for a person to attend a religious gathering other than at the parish church with more than five people outside his or her family. As Bunyan refused to agree to give up preaching, his imprisonment eventually extended to 12 years, served in Bedford Gaol. It was during this time that he started writing The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come. (I can’t discover how he acquired the necessary learning – do any readers know?) It recounts, in allegorical form, the experience of a man called Christian, from the first awareness of his sinfulness and spiritual need to his conversion to Christ and his life as a believer. The book follows Christian’s pilgrimage to the ‘Celestial City’.

After Bunyan’s release in 1672 he obtained a preacher’s licence and devoted his life to writing and preaching. He died in 1688.

To Be a Pilgrim is his only known hymn. It did not catch on for a long time, possibly because of its references to hobgoblins and foul fiends. However for the 1906 English Hymnal it was given a makeover by the Rev Percy Dearmer, who is credited with helping to reintroduce many elements of traditional and medieval English music into the Church of England.

For example, he changed the first four lines from

Who would true valour see/ Let him come hither/ One here will constant be/ Come wind, come weather


He who would valiant be/ Gainst all disaster/ Let him in constancy/ Follow the Master.

Verse 3 was changed from

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend/Can daunt his spirit/ He knows he at the end/ Shall life inherit


Since, Lord, thou dost defend/ Us with thy Spirit/ We know we at the end/ Shall life inherit.

I see this as a good example of someone without flair thinking he can improve a work of genius.

For the English Hymnal the words were paired with a tune collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Mrs Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate in West Sussex. (The same woman gave Vaughan Williams the words and music for the Sussex Carol.) The tune belonged to a traditional song called Our Captain Cried All Hands but is now referred to as Monks Gate or, if we are lucky, Monk’s Gate.

The original version thankfully regained popularity, and is the one we sang at school.

Baroness Thatcher asked that To Be a Pilgrim should be sung at her funeral, which was in 2013. Oddly enough, it was one of Tony Benn’s Desert Island Discs in 1989.

It was used in the 1968 film If (with the original Bunyan words). In this clip look out for Graham Crowden as a history master, Arthur Lowe as a housemaster and Peter Jeffrey as the headmaster.

And here is a lovely version from the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.

Do mention any favourite hymns in the comments and I will do my best to include them.

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Margaret Ashworth
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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