O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go


Most people of faith probably have a favorite hymn. They may forget a sermon almost before lunch is over on Sunday, even if the sermon is a fine one, but they will not as easily forget a piece of music, though admittedly, repetition in hymn-singing is likely to contribute to the memory of hymns. The added element of music is a huge factor, of course, in solidifying memory. Indeed, a sermon might be longer remembered if sung, even if badly sung…especially if badly sung.

My favorite hymn is O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go, written by Scottish theologian George Matheson (1842-1906), a noted preacher who, despite going completely blind at age 20 but not letting that handicap deter him from his calling, was so acclaimed that the Queen asked for his sermon, The Patience of Job, to be printed. The music, the St. Margaret hymn tune, for Matheson's text was composed by fellow Scotchman Albert L Peace (1844-1912), one of the most prominent organists of his day and a prolific composer of sacred music.

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine's blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow thru the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain,
that morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life's glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red
life that shall endless be.

This hymn makes use of the unusual rhyme scheme, abaab, and is comprised of a marvelous use of metaphors -- ocean depths, light, torch, ray, sunshine's glow, joy, pain, rainbow, rain, morn, cross, dust, ground. However, it's the message that's so powerful, driving home the point that one may not escape the love of God, not a romantic love, of course, but a love that is anchored in God's commitment to take care of his human creation. This love is reflected in the Light (the Word), Joy (the dividend), and Cross (the vehicle of redemption).

I was so impressed with this hymn that I wrote it into one of my novels, Autumn 1943. Nancy Baxter, a school teacher, and her son Johnny had been denied a husband and father six years before when her husband, a railroad brakeman, was killed in a terrible train wreck. After that happened, Nancy withdrew from the faith, the church, prayer, and anything that had to do with belief. At the urging of her son, she finally consented to attend a "revival service" at a small clapboard church in the neighborhood held by an itinerant preacher, Cecil McToon, a World War I veteran and mustard-gas victim. This is the scene:

"Before he spoke, McToon sang the simple hymn, "O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go." But, did God's love let me go when Henry died, Nancy asked herself, as McToon sang the title, the first phrase of the hymn. The second phrase of the first verse filled her with a nagging wondering: "I rest my weary soul in Thee." Did I try that…was I too busy with my anger…have I been content to rest my weary soul in myself…God knows I am tired…have I thought myself somehow too unique to suffer the same experiences others have had…are having now, with this awful war? The third phrase stabbed her: "I give Thee back the life I owe." What have I given of real worth since that day…even to Johnny? I am paid to teach…I am paid to work in the summers…what tangible things have I given… much less my life…to God or anyone? The wonder increased with the last phrase: "That in Thine ocean depths its flow/May richer, fuller be." What am I missing here? Don't I have a full life? I think I do…let's not kid about this…you know you don't. It isn't what you have…it's what you might have…and does having come by giving? These thoughts ran through her mind as McToon sang the other verses, which said about the same things, but in different ways. When he was finished, McToon explained that the hymn text was written by George Matheson, an English minister of the last century, who was blind, had experienced a period of despondency at one time, but had, in some of the words of the third verse, traced the rainbow through the rain and knew the "morn shall tearless be."

Nancy had been approached by Major Sam Ross, newly arrived, badly wounded commander of the pre-pre-flight facility at the local college, but she had never even considered the overtures of other men since Henry's death. She was attracted to Ross and had had to come to grips with forever living in the confinement of her memory of Henry, as she had promised herself she would do, or finally getting on with her life. This was a meaningful moment for her.