Notes from "Songs of Pilgrimage and Glory" by E.E. Cornwall:
Descended from a line of godly Scottish ministers, Horatius Bonar was born in Edinburgh, Dec. 19th. 1808, being the sixth son of James Bonar, Solicitor of Excise; his mother being formerly Marjory Maitland. Losing his father when 12, Horatius was moulded by the influence of a saintly mother, his elder brother James and Dr. T.S. Jones, minister of Lady Glenorchy's Chapel, which the family attended. As an earnest Christian student at Edinburgh University, he came under the beneficial influence of Dr. Thomas Chalmers.
In 1837, at the early age of 29, his zeal and gifts led to his being appointed minister at North Church, Kelso, Co. Roxburgh, where he remained until 1866. (His younger brother Andrew also became a noted preacher, being connected with Collace, Perth and Jedburgh. He wrote the biography of Robert Murray McCheyne. He was overshadowed by his more illustrious brother, Horatius).
In 1843, he married Jane Catherine, daughter of Rev. Robert Lundie, also of Kelso. They had a family of nine children. Their marriage was in the same year as the great Disruption, and Dr. Horatius Bonar took an active part in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland, this movement enlarging his sphere of labour. In 1856, he undertook a long tour in Egypt and the "Holy Land", this visit deepening his interest in prophecy, which is so intimately connected with Palestine and the East.
In 1866, Dr. Bonar was invited to become minister of the Chalmers Memorial Church, Edinburgh, continuing there until 1887, when in his 80th. year; having in 1883 been elected to the post of Moderator of Assembly. Soon after this he lost his wife, who was called home Dec. 3rd. 1884 at the age of 63. In 1888 came his last, long illness of 15 months duration, and his departure took place July 31st. 1889. Amidst universal sorrow, his body was laid to rest in the gloomy Canongate Cemetery, Edinburgh, to await the first resurrection, while the mourners sang his sweet lines founded on the motto of his family "Denique Coelum". (Heaven at last).
"What a city! What a glory!
Far beyond the brightest story,
Of the ages old and hoary;
Ah! 'tis heaven at last!"
Among Scottish hymn writers, two names stand out conspicuously; the earlier name being James Montgomery (1771-1854) who was born in Ayrshire, the author of the hymn "Hail to the Lord's Anointed," and the other Horatius Bonar, who has been called the principal hymn-writer of Scotland, the author of the hymn "I heard the voice of Jesus say" which is found in most hymn books, and this particular hymn is now seldom left out of any collection. Apart from those hymns bearing on the Lord's Coming, other hymns of his are widely known.
Shortly before coming of age, Horatius Bonar came under the influence of teaching that profoundly affected his whole life and ministry. We are told that under the influences of three lectures, delivered in the early mornings in Edinburgh in 1828, 1829 and 1830, by Edward Irving, his mind seems to have attained convictions on these things of the future which were never afterwards shaken. He became and ever remained an earnest student of prophecy.
[Edward Irving attended the Meetings for Prophetic study in Powerscourt House. J.N. Darby and other brethren attended these meetings. The matter of miraculous gifts etc. was raised at these meetings and was rejected. Edward Irving was eventually expelled from the Church of Scotland. He held erroneous views on the Person of Christ. The movement that bears his name, The Irvingites, is fully exposed in the Bible Treasury edited by William Kelly. While Irving supported those who claimed to speak with tongues etc. he himself never made any claim that he spoke with tongues. He was a renowned preacher and led a blameless life morally. —F.W.]
It was in his 29th year that Dr. Bonar began his long and fruitful ministry at Kelso, in lovely surroundings so in harmony with his poetic temperament; and although his poems had been appearing in other collections, it was here that the best were written and came out in three volumes as "Hymns of Faith and Hope". He published the first series in 1857, the second in 1861, and the third in 1866.
Besides poetry, Dr. Bonar wrote a great deal of prose. We are told that "of all his books, that which has been most widely circulated and richly blessed is 'God's Way of Peace', a book for the anxious, written in 1862". Of his books that bear more directly on our theme, he wrote in 1845, 'The Night of Weeping'; in 1847 'Prophetical Landmarks'; in 1849 'The Coming and Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ'; and in 1850, 'The Morning of Joy'. He also founded and edited for a quarter of a century, 'The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy'. In 'Prophetical Landmarks' Dr. Bonar quotes with approval the belief of Augustus Toplady 1740-1778, the author of 'Rock of Ages cleft for me', who said "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".
Dr. Bonar's work "The Coming Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ," was written to refute post-millennial teaching, for at that time there were many who believed Christ would not come until the close of the millennium. In his book "The Morning of Joy", he also explores this unscriptura1 idea. He says "It has ever been Satan's object to interpose some thing between the Church and her Lord's arrival, but never did he light upon a more specious and successful device than that of making the interposed object a glorious and blessed one ... 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".
The ministry of Dr. H. Bonar was marked by reality and earnestness, and at times it was solemnizing. 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". One who knew him well felt that he was "Pre-eminently a man of God, one who lived entirely under the power of the world to come". Though he may have differed on some points, we believe that in the main Dr. Bonar, in his interpretation of prophecy, agreed with those who are the subjects of our hymn-papers and who have been called "Futurists". It is quite possible, however, that those who belong to what is called the "historic" school may to some extent claim him as being in agreement with themselves.
Notes from "Who Wrote our Hymns" by Christopher Knapp.
In 1839 the Free Church of Scotland sent a commission composed of four ministers of whom Andrew Bonar and R. McCheyne were the younger members, to visit the principal centres of the Jews in Europe and Palestine. It aroused widespread interest and Horatius Bonar visited Palestine in 1856. A returned traveller from Palestine relates the following concerning Dr. Bonar. "One dark night in the year 1856, in the city of Jerusalem, I wandered into a lighted mission room on Mount Zion, where a small company of men and women of various nationalities and complexions were gathered. At the desk was a man of impressive countenance, of low and musical voice ... the preacher, as I learned later, was Dr. Horatius Bonar. Learned and eloquent, there was a wonderful charm in what he said that night, because he had strong convictions on that subject of much speculation — the second coming of the Lord. He believed in His personal coming to reign on the earth; and his faith, seconded by his rich poetic imagination and fervour all quickened by the fact that we were in Jerusalem, the city of the Passion, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Ascension, gave to his words a winning power which I cannot describe. He had no specific time for the Advent. He did not argue in controversy, but gave himself up to the scene where, sooner or later, the King shall come again to walk in the streets of His abasement, in the effulgence of the sunlight that shall attend Him ... To hear such a man in Jerusalem, having a firm belief in the personal coming and reign of Christ, thus to communicate to others freely his confident hopes, was a memorable event".
"The impulse given by Dr. Chalmers to Mr. Bonar", says his biographer "was deepened by his fellowship with Robert McCheyne of Dundee, where a great revival had sprung up whilst they were away in Palestine on their mission to the Jews. The Spirit of God wrought in power and many souls were saved. A tide of blessing swept through the land and Mr Bonar entered heartily into the movement and helped to spread it. He spared not himself in his efforts to carry the Gospel to the perishing. He spoke as a dying man to dying men resulting in many conversions. He also wrote the Kelso tracts which went where his voice could not reach. His aim was to warn the cavillers, to present salvation simply, and to edify the saints. These messengers of life went into many homes and were eagerly read. Their circulation in Scotland and England was very large, and they found warm reception in America.
One well acquainted with Dr. Bonar says, "Visitors in Edinburgh might go out of curiosity to see and listen to this 'sweet singer,' but they soon forgot the poet in the preacher. The opening prayer lifted them into the presence of God and they listened as he went on to speak of a love stronger than death and of the experience of a Christian life.
Dr. Bonar's hymns in 'Spiritual Songs' are:-
15 All that we were — our sins, our guilt
84 We hear the words of love
89 Blessed be God, our God
319 Our sins were borne by Jesus
366 I heard the voice of Jesus say
374 Go, labour on, spend and be spent
443 I was a wandering sheep
These are robust and challenging hymns and are valuable hymns for singing when saints are gathered together. The true value of a hymn is in the pre-eminence that it gives to the Lord Jesus or the Father.