PODCAST: Be Thou My Vision (History Behind the Hymns Episode #19 with Daniel Whyte III)

Welcome to the History Behind the Hymns podcast. This is episode #19

I am your host, Daniel Whyte III, president of Gospel Light Society International. I am one of many Christians who still loves the old hymns of the faith even more than many modern Christian songs. For the past 33 years, my wife and children and I have sung the old hymns during our family devotion time. Over the years we have used an Independent Baptist hymn book, a National Baptist hymn book, and a Southern Baptist hymn book to sing the old hymns of the faith. And we have sung the old hymns of the faith with traditional Methodist churches online. The old hymns of the faith have been a tremendous source of blessing and encouragement to my heart down through the years. The purpose of this podcast is to encourage you to dust off your old hymn book and experience the power and blessing of well-written hymns based upon sound doctrine for the glory of God that will strengthen your faith.

The History Behind the Hymns passage of Scripture is Colossians 3:1-2 which reads: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.”

The History Behind the Hymns quote for today is from Matt Redman. He said: “Most songs come from being attentive. Attentive to life, attentive to Scripture, attentive to your heart. Pay attention!”

The quote in connection to today’s hymn is from Charles Swindoll. He said: “Vision is the ability to see God’s presence, to perceive God’s power, to focus on God’s plan in spite of the obstacles.”

Our hymn for today is “Be Thou My Vision” by Eleanor Hull. It reads:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my battle Shield, Sword for the fight;
Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight;
Thou my soul’s Shelter, Thou my high Tow’r:
Raise Thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Now here is the history behind the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision”. According to Umcdiscipleship.org:

Sometimes hymn singing invites us to connect with the saints who have gone before. Such is the case with the famous Irish hymn, “Be Thou my vision.” The original poem, found in two Irish manuscripts in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, may be dated as early as the 8th century.

Quite often, older hymns come to us as a collaborative effort before we are able to sing them from our hymnals. The Irish text, beginning “Rob tu mo bhoile (boh-lay), a Comdi cride,” was translated into literal prose by Irish scholar Mary Byrne, a Dublin native, and then published in Eriú (Eh-ru), the journal of the School of Irish Learning, in 1905. Byrne was also known for her academic publications, including Old and Mid-Irish Dictionary, Dictionary of the Irish Language, and a treatise, England in the Age of Chaucer.

The original prose translation comes to us in 16 couplets.

The first is: Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart. None other is aught but the King of the seven heavens.

And the last is: O heart of my heat, whate’er befall me, O ruler of all, be thou my vision.

It is at this point that Eleanor Hull enters the story. Born in Manchester, England, she was the founder of the Irish Text Society and president of the Irish Literary Society of London. Hull versified the text and it was published in her Poem Book of the Gael. Following the original publication in Ireland, the hymn was included in a number of British hymnals. After World War II, the hymn came to the attention of hymnal editors in the U.S. and it has become a standard hymn in most hymnals today.

Irish liturgy and ritual scholar Helen Phelan, a lecturer at the University of Limerick, points out how the language of this hymn is drawn from traditional Irish culture: “One of the essential characteristics of the text is the use of ‘heroic’ imagery to describe God. This was very typical of medieval Irish poetry, which cast God as the ‘chieftain’ or ‘High King’ (Ard Ri) who provided protection to His people or clan. The lorica is one of the most popular forms of this kind of protection prayer and is very prevalent in texts of this period.” The original chieftain language of the “High King of heaven” has given way to the more inclusive “Great God” in the UM Hymnal.

When Hull’s versification was paired with the lovely traditional Irish tune SLANE in The Irish Church Hymnal in 1919, its popularity was sealed. The folk melody was taken from a non-liturgical source, Patrick Weston Joyce’s Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: A Collection of 842 Airs and Songs hitherto unpublished.

“Most ‘traditional’ Irish religious songs are non-liturgical,” says Dr. Phelan. “There is a longstanding practice of ‘editorial weddings’ in Irish liturgical music, where traditional tunes were wedded to more liturgically appropriate texts. This is a very good example of this practice.”

It was on Slane Hill in County Meath around 433 CE that St. Patrick lit candles on Easter Eve, defying a decree by High King Logaire of Tara that no one could light a fire before the king signaled the beginning of the pagan spring festival by lighting a fire on Tara Hill. King Logaire was so impressed by Patrick’s devotion that, despite his defiance, he was permitted to continue his work as Ireland’s first Christian missionary.

In our next episode we will look at the history behind the hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” by Elisha A. Hoffman and Anthony J. Showalter.

Let’s Pray —

Dear friend, this hymn honors God and the Lord Jesus Christ, if you do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, and you want to get to know Him today here’s how.

First, accept the fact that you are a sinner, and that you have broken God’s law. The Bible says in Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

Second, accept the fact that there is a penalty for sin. The Bible states in Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death…”

Third, accept the fact that you are on the road to hell. Jesus Christ said in Matthew 10:28: Also, the Bible states in Revelation 21:8: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.”

Now this is bad news, but here’s the good news. Jesus Christ said in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Just believe in your heart that Jesus Christ died for your sins, was buried, and rose from the dead by the power of God for you so that you can live eternally with Him. Pray and ask Him to come into your heart today, and He will.

Romans 10:9-13 says, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Pray and ask Him to come into your heart and He will.

May God bless you and keep you until we meet again.