Horatius Bonar has justifiably been called Scotland's chief hymn-writer, his hymns numbering some 600. Although many never gained popularity, some have become an integral part of our goodly heritage of hymns today. Perhaps his best known one is "I heard the voice of Jesus say…" which he called The Voice from Galilee.
Not long before he died he said, "Please don't write a biography of me". He knew his time had come, and also knew that many people would be interested in his life. But his life's ministry had been centred on the glory of Christ, and he didn't want anything to stand in the way of that. Because of this we have only a brief outline of his life and ministry. He was, however, a prolific writer. His written works fill 47 volumes, a total of some 12,000 pages!
Life and Ministry
Horatius Bonar was born in Edinburgh on 19th December, 1808, the sixth son of James Bonar, Solicitor of Excise, who died when the lad was twelve. His saintly mother (Marjory Maitland) and his elder brother James were then influential in bringing him to salvation in his teens. Others moulded his character and his thinking while he was a student at Edinburgh University. Dr Thomas Chalmers, born in Anstruther, scientist and theologian, energetic in promoting the gospel among the poor, was one of his tutors. Edward Irving's lectures in Edinburgh quickened his interest in prophetical matters. Bonar and his brother Andrew developed a strong friendship with Robert Murray McCheyne of Dundee.¹
His first public post was assistant minister in Leith, where for three and a half years his work among the youth of that poor and rough seaport was greatly blessed. He began his hymn writing there, for in his extensive Sunday School work he saw that the children needed something suitable to sing. Then in 1837, aged 29, he was appointed minister in the border town of Kelso. He stayed there for almost thirty years.
In 1843, he married Jane Catherine², daughter of Robert Lundie of Kelso. They had their fair share of joys and sorrows. Out of their family of nine children, five died in childhood. 1843 was also the year of "The Great Disruption" when the Free Church of Scotland was formed out of the evangelical movement in the established Church of Scotland. Bonar's heart and soul were in that movement and his ministry followed, partly due to the earlier influence of Chalmers but also because he had seen at first hand how the established church, with its politically appointed ministers, was failing to lead the nation towards God and arouse faith in Christ.
He was a typical nineteenth century Scottish scholar, well taught in the classics, serious and studious. His life was marked by piety and his ministry by deep earnestness, at times solemnising. He said, "Laughter and gaiety belong to a fallen world. They are too superficial to have a place among the holy and too hollow to be known among the truly happy". But he did have a good sense of humour and was very fond of children. Indeed some time after the five of his own had died, he was delighted when his widowed daughter and her five children came to live with him. It was said of him that he was always praying, that he was always preaching, that he was always visiting, that he was always writing.
In 1866, he came to the Chalmers Memorial Church, Edinburgh (Chalmers had died in 1847), where he continued until 1887 when he was in his 80th year. His wife who had been his faithful helper all through his ministry died on 3rd December, 1884 at the age of 63. For his own last 15 months he suffered from a protracted illness until he went home to heaven on 31st July, 1889. His body rests in the rather gloomy and neglected Canongate Cemetery, off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The words on his gravestone are becoming worn out, but his record is on high and he can be perhaps more appropriately remembered when we turn to one of his hymns and sing it.
The character of Horatius Bonar and his beliefs shine through his writings. He was founder and editor of The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy. Unlike many at that time he held definite pre-millennial beliefs which are well described by Augustus Toplady (1740-1778, author of Rock of Ages, cleft for me) whom he quotes: "I am one of those old-fashioned people who believe the doctrine of the Millennium; and that there will be two resurrections of the dead, first of the just, secondly of the unjust, which last resurrection of the reprobate will not commence until a thousand years after the resurrection of the elect. In the glorious interval of a thousand years, Christ...will reign in Person". His own books, The Coming Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ (1849) and The Morning of Joy (1850), expound his own deeply held convictions that Christ would come before the Millennium begins. He says, "It has ever been Satan's object to interpose some thing between the Church and her Lord's arrival...If the Lord's advent be thrust into the distance, it matters not what may be introduced to fill the interval. If the Hope of the Church be hidden, it is of small moment whether it be by a shroud of sackcloth or by a veil of woven gold". Even the titles of two others, The Night of Weeping (1845) and The Morning of Joy (1850), show how his mind and spirit were tuned to the soon return of the Lord.
He wrote many gospel tracts while in Kelso. One of them, Believe and Live, one million of which were printed, was a favourite with Queen Victoria. His book, God's Way of Peace (1862), was richly blessed to anxious souls. He preached in surrounding villages and farmhouses as well as in the pulpit. His gospel was Christ centred and Christ honouring. He said, "We think if we can but get men converted, it does not much matter how. Our whole anxiety is not 'How shall we secure the glory of Jehovah?' but 'How shall we multiply conversions?'". Again, "If Christ is not the substitute, He is nothing to the sinner. If He did not die as the sin-bearer, He has died in vain. Let us not be deceived on this point nor misled by those who, when they announce Christ as the deliverer, think they have preached the gospel…The very essence of Christ's deliverance is the substitution of Himself for us - His life for ours! He did not come to risk his life; He came to die! He redeemed us to God by His blood (1 Pet 1.18-19). He gave all He had, even His life, for us. This is the kind of deliverance that awakens the happy song, 'To him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood' (Rev 1.5)".
It is no surprise, then, that his hymns were so devotional as well as evangelical and pastoral, and, above all, Scriptural. Almost all of them can be found in the three volumes entitled Hymns of Faith and Hope which he published in Kelso in 1857, 1861 and 1866.³
When we gather for the Lord's Supper, for Bible teaching, for prayer, for gospel preaching, or whatever, some of the hymns chosen from our hymnbooks will be Bonar's. We love to sing hymns such as:
All that we were, our sins, our guilt
I hear the words of love
Blessed be God, our God
Here, O my Lord I see Thee face to face
No blood, no altar now
Done is the work that saves
Not what I am, O Lord, but what Thou art
I was a wandering sheep
I heard the voice of Jesus say
Rejoice and be glad
Yet there is room
Go, labour on, spend and be spent.
And perhaps our singing will be a little more thoughtful and expressive as we recall their author. But his wish would be that we rather recall and think more highly of his Saviour, and ours, as he wrote:
Unchangeable Jesus, Thy praises we sing
And own Thee our Prophet, our Priest, and our King.
O give us while singing sweet tastes of Thy love
To raise our affections to treasures above.
To be continued.
¹ His brother Andrew Bonar wrote the well-known biography of McCheyne.
² His wife Jane is the author of Fade, fade each earthly joy; Jesus is mine.
³ Around 145 of his hymns are listed in www.cyberhymnal.org.