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The Midweek Hymn: Will Your Anchor Hold?


THERE are quite a number of hymns about the sea. This one was suggested by a reader as a tribute to the 40,000 volunteers who give such sterling service to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. These include very nearly all its 4,600 crew members.

The words of the rousing hymn, Will Your Anchor Hold? were inspired by the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 6, verse 19: ‘Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast . . .’

Sometimes titled We Have an Anchor, it was written in 1882 by Priscilla Jane Owens for her Sunday school pupils.

Miss Owens was born in Baltimore in 1829 of Scottish and Welsh ancestry. She was a public school teacher there for 49 years, and a Sunday school teacher at the Union Square Methodist Episcopal Church for even longer. She composed poetry and prose on a wide range of topics, including ballads relating to the Civil War, religious verse, and hymns and Sunday school songs. The Hymntime website  credits her with 229 hymns. Strangely, various authorities give different dates of death, 1899 and 1907. Either way she died in Baltimore, having spent her life there.

The music was written by William J Kirkpatrick (1838–1921). He was born in Ireland but his family emigrated to America in 1840, when he was two, settling in Philadelphia. He showed early musical promise and was unusually versatile, playing the cello, fife, flute, organ, and violin. He was a member of the same Christian denomination as Miss Owens, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and his first collection of hymns, Devotional Melodies, was published in 1859.

He married Su­san­na Doak in 1861, and they had three child­ren. He supported his family by working as a carpenter, while continuing to write hymns.

Susanna’s death in 1878 spurred him to give up his trade and devote himself fully to music and composition. He began collaborating with another composer, John R Sweney, of Chester, Pennsylvania, and between 1880 and 1897 they published 49 major books.

In 1893, Kirkpatrick married again, to Sar­ah Lank­ford Kel­logg Bourne, and in 1895 he published the tune to Away in a Manger which is most widely used in Britain, which I wrote about here. 

The tune is called Cradle Song and is sung here by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, in an arrangement by Daid Willcocks:

Over the years Kirkpatrick published close to 100 major works and many other works such as anthems for Easter, Christmas, and children’s choirs. Total sales of sheet music ran into the millions.

Kirkpatrick’s second wife Sar­ah died in 1917 and he later mar­ried Lizzie Swe­ney, wi­dow of John R Swe­ney.

As he and his wife were about retire for the night on September 20, 1921, he told her that he had a tune running through his head and he wanted to write it down before he lost it. During the night she went downstairs and found him dead in his study.

This performance of the hymn by Ely Cathedral Choir uses a photo of Henry Blogg GC (1876-1954), coxswain of the lifeboat at Cromer, Norfolk, for 37 years, who is known as ‘the greatest of the lifeboatmen’.

Here is a short film about Blogg’s life.

Anglia TV made a two-part documentary about him in the 1960s which you can see here and here.  I wish I had found it before I wrote about Eternal Father Strong to Save.

Will Your Anchor Hold? is the official anthem of the Boys’ Brigade, an international Christian youth organisation founded in Glasgow in 1883 by Sir William Alexander Smith. The Brigade’s motto is ‘Sure and Stedfast’, retaining the old spelling of the latter word. I am not sure who the singers are here, but there are some great old pictures to accompany the hymn.

Here is a delightful brass band version.

Finally, a joyful Caribbean rendering. Lovely stuff.

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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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