One of my favorite hymns is “Sweet Hour of Prayer”, a poem that is credited to William W. Walford, who wrote it in 1842, set to beautiful music by William B. Bradbury in 1861.
It is a powerful reminder to the Christian to set aside a good amount of time for daily, personal and private devotion and conversation with God.
The business of giving God two to five minutes before climbing into bed does not cut it. After another day of life at work, of socializing with family and friends, and of complaining to fellow humans about personal problems, the least a Christian can do is to spare at least one hour for personal communion with God.
After all it is God who has enabled you to get and keep your job, your friends and your family. It is God who has the power to solve your problems and those that afflict the world around you. It is God who has given you the very life over which you think you have control.
Why are you alive when your peers and younger people than you die all around you? On Sunday September 11, 2016, I woke up to the news that Moses Balagadde, The Monitor newspaper’s editorial cartoonist, had died. He was only 43, born when I was in medical school! Sobering thought. He, of course, was one of many young people, including little children, who died on that day alone.
Beyond the sadness engendered by such news, my mind returned to the old questions: Why have I been spared? Am I doing enough to fulfill God’s purpose for me? Am I doing things that will make a difference for others, things that will live long after my body has become dust and my name is only known to a handful of curious descendants two centuries from now? And who will make it possible for me to be what I must be?
Walford’s hymn speaks to all of us regardless of our physical location, station in life or perceived problems and challenges. It is especially relevant to the Christian living in a distressed country or region, where pain, suffering, uncertainty and death are daily occurrences.
A one-on-one visit with the Lord is what Walford talks about in his poem. The first stanza alone speaks of the therapeutic and protective power of sufficient time spent in private devotion to the Lord. It gives us hope of relief through the Lord’s intervention.
“Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer!/That calls me from a world of care,/And bids me at my Father’s throne/Make all my wants and wishes known./In seasons of distress and grief,/My soul has often found relief/And oft escaped the tempter’s snare/By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!”
The four stanzas of this beautiful hymn are a poetic expansion of what the Apostle Paul wrote to us in Philippians 4:6 – “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
Walford reminds us to do this unhurriedly and not to engage in ritualistic prayer that soon becomes a burdensome interruption of our worldly pursuits. Literally a daily hour or more of personal, private prayer should be something to relish as it calls us “from a world of care” and bids us to our Father’s throne where we make all our “wants and wishes known.”
This post, though, is not about the hymn itself, but about the man who wrote it. When the poem first appeared in the New York Observer on September 13, 1845, there was an explanatory note by the man who had submitted it for publication.
The Rev. Thomas Salmon, a Congregational minister, wrote: “During my residence at Coleshill, Warwickshire, England, I became acquainted with W. W. Walford, the blind preacher, a man of obscure birth and connections and no education, but of strong mind and most retentive memory.”
Walford, who was able to recite Bible passages, word for word, had earned the reputation of ‘knowing the whole Bible by heart.’ He earned a living by crafting various implements from animal bones.
Salmon continued: “At intervals he attempted poetry. On one occasion, paying him a visit, he asked ‘How will this do?’, as he repeated the following lines, with a complacent smile touched with some light lines of fear lest he subject himself to criticism. I rapidly copied the lines with my pencil, as he uttered them, and sent them for insertion in the Observer, if you should think them worthy of preservation.” The Observer preserved them and they still speak to us more than 170 years later.
Some hymnody researchers have doubted the story about the hymn’s author. Whereas a Rev. Walford lived in England, a blind, uneducated one has never been traced by the historians.
However, the answer may well be in Salmon’s description of him. A man of obscure birth and connections and no education – that was Walford.
Like numerous bright people in our lifetime who remain unrecognized because of their “obscure origins” and normal lifestyles, Walford did not merit the attention of the record keepers of Victorian England.
While Walford was composing his soul-enriching works, the cabinet of Sir Robert Peel, the British Prime Minister, made up of men of proper birth and education, voted against measures for famine relief in Ireland. The world honored the ruthless and uncaring, and ignored the poor with noble hearts. As it was then, is now.
Without doubt Walford was not obscure to God who used him to spread the Word and to challenge us long after the rich and famous men and women of noble birth, with aristocratic connections and high education are forgotten as though they never lived.