O LOVE THAT WILT NOT LET ME GO
George Matheson began to lose his sight before he was a year old; at 17 he was almost completely blind. A brilliant student in spite of this handicap, he gained his B.A. at the University of Glasgow in 1861, his M.A. in 1862, and a B.D. in 1866. He was ordained in 1868 and appointed as parish minister at Innelan, Argyll, on the Firth of Clyde. In the manse there on June 6, 1882, he was, he says, “Suffering from extreme mental distress and the hymn was the fruit of pain.” This pain was not caused by a broken engagement, as that had happened about 20 years earlier, but it might have been a bereavement or his concern over the inroads that Darwinism was making in the church.
This hymn was written very quickly in the space of minutes only, as though it was dictated by an inward voice, and not revised or retouched afterwards. The one exception that was later suggested and agreed upon was in the third stanza where “I climb” now reads “I trace.” In spite of the author’s statement that it was written in 1882, June 1881 may be the correct date. The words, as in most of Matheson’s poems, are not easy to understand on first reading, but become clearer after much thought. The text uses metaphors for a God who will not leave His child forsaken: first Love, then Joy, then the Cross.
George Matheson was born in Glasgow on March 27, 1842. He ministered at Aniline from 1868 to 1886, when he was transferred to St. Bernard’s in Edinburgh. He served there until he resigned, because of ill health, in 1899. He died at North Berwick, Lothian, Scotland, on August 28, 1906. He also wrote SDAH 568, “Make Me a Captive, Lord.”
St. Margaret, the tune to which Matheson's poem was set, was likewise composed very rapidly; its composer, Albert Lister Peace, said that “the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune.” He was requested to supply a tune for Matheson’s words, which he carried with him, ready to jot down the melody as inspiration came to him. He was sitting on the sand on the isle of Arran reading the words when this melody came into his mind. The name of the tune commemorates a queen of Scotland who was a benefactress to the church, thus making this hymn truly a Scottish one.
Peace was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, on January 26, 1844. When only 9 years old, he was organist at the Parish Church at Holmfirth, five miles south of his birthplace. He studied at the University of Oxford, gaining a B.Mus. degree in 1870. After filling several minor posts as organist until 1879, he was appointed organist at Glasgow Cathedral, where he remained until 1897. Then he was called to be organist at St. George’s Hall in Liverpool. He wrote much church and organ music and edited two hymnals. He died in Blundellsans, near Liverpool, on March 14, 1912. In his time he was recognized as one of Britain’s greatest organists.
Adapted from Wayne Hooper and E. E. White, Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, 1988. Used by permission.