Words: William Walford, 1845; Music: William B. Bradbury
“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!
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
the joys I feel, the bliss I share
of those whose anxious spirits burn
with strong desires for thy return!
With such I hasten to the place
where God my Savior shows his face,
and gladly take my station there,
and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer!
thy wings shall my petition bear
to him whose truth and faithfulness
engage the waiting soul to bless.
And since he bids me seek his face,
believe his word, and trust his grace,
I’ll cast on him my every care,
and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!”
The text of this hymn was written by William Walford (1772-1850). William Walford was blind, but this did not make him worthless. On the contrary, as he sat by the fire in his English home in the mid-nineteenth century, his hands kept busy, whittling out useful objects, such as shoehorns. His mind was active, too.
He was often called on to preach from time to time in a rural English church and he composed sermons in his head to deliver on Sundays. He memorized a huge amount of the Bible which he quoted verbatim in his sermons. Some of his folk thought he had memorized the entire Scripture, cover to cover. William also composed lines of verse. And he prayed.
Thomas Salmon, a pastor from New York visited Waltford and spent some time in Coleshill, Warwickshire, England, where he became acquainted with William. He tells this story of what happened one day, while he was visiting the blind pastor:
“…He repeated two or three pieces which he had composed, and having no friend at home to commit them to paper, he had laid them up in the storehouse within. “How will this do?” asked he, 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.”
This poem was the four-stanza rhyme which is now known as “Sweet Hour of Prayer . Three years later when Salmon was visiting the United States, he showed it to the editor of the New York Observer. It was published September 13, 1845. William Walford went on to write the music to many hymns still used today including Depth of Mercy, The Solid Rock, He Leadeth Me and Just as I am.
About fifteen years later, in 1860 or 1861, William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-1868), a composer from New York, wrote the tune that is usually associated with this song. Bradbury also composed the music for other popular hymns, including: “Jesus Loves Me,” “He Leadeth Me,” “Just as I Am,” “Jesus Like a Savior Lead Us,” and “The Solid Rock.”
After the song became well-known, students of hymnody tried to track down W.W. Walford, but they found no one of that name who fit the description given by Salmon. They did locate a Rev. William Walford in Homerton, England, but he was well educated and not blind. (Note: Coleshill is located near Birmingham, England. I was unable to locate Homerton, but my understanding is that Homerton was located near Coleshill.)
Two things struck me as I studied the history of this song:
The first is that neither the original author nor Rev. Salmon ever knew that these verses would become a much beloved song. Rev. Salmon died in 1854, long before William Bradbury composed the music. Rev. Walford, of course, probably never even knew that his poem had been published in a newspaper. The lesson for me was that God very often works through our lives in wonderful ways that we could never even guess. I am looking forward to pleasant surprises of that sort when I get to heaven.
The second is that the words of this song speak directly to our condition –– the “world of care” in which we live –– our “seasons of distress and grief.” But it offers a remedy –– a “sweet hour of prayer.” And it holds out hope that we will find relief and escape “the tempter’s snare.” Those of us that teach the word might take a note of those three points: Speaking to the human condition –– offering a remedy –– and holding out hope. That’s good preaching, and that’s what this song does.
This hymn refers to “Mount Pisgah” the place where Moses viewed the land of Israel before being taken to heaven, Deuteronomy 3:27. The reference here is to the day when we will not need the time of prayer because we will be in God’s very presence.
I will be the first to admit that when I was growing up and listening to this particular hymn, my initial reaction was either “Why would someone want to pray for a full hour?” or “What can you pray about for 60 minutes straight?” Well, time has passed and I have matured a little bit more from my younger days and my perspective about prayer has changed since my youth, but I think the author of this hymn had a different meaning for “Hour of prayer.” I think his intent was a “season” or “time” of prayer not necessarily the 60 minutes period. In our busy lives that we lead, one of the areas that can be neglected is this season of prayer. There are things that tend to take our time, our thoughts, and our energy, and we can become easily distracted by “life,” and we do not spend the necessary time in prayer. This hymn is a reminder of some of the things that make prayer “sweet:” It is a hymn that helps to explain many of the blessings of prayer that make it so sweet.
- According to stanza 1, prayer is a relief and escape from the devil’s snare
We can resist the devil: Jas. 4.7, 1 Pet. 5.8-9. But escaping the tempter’s snare includes prayer: Matt. 6.12-13, 26.41 and also, we must ask forgiveness of sins in prayer: Acts 8.22
- Stanza 2, prayer is a time for joy and bliss Christians are to be joyful: Phil. 4.4, 1 Jn. 1.4. Prayer is one way to express our joy and bliss: Col. 4.2, Heb. 13.15 Because of this, we should pray always, everywhere, boldly, and fervently: Lk. 18.1, 1 Tim. 2.8, Heb. 4.16, Jas. 5.16
- Stanza 3, prayer is an opportunity to make known our wishes, cares, and petitions to God – This is God’s will: Phil. 4.6-7, 1 Pet. 5.7. There are many things that we may pray for–the church, rulers, wisdom, health of others: Eph. 6.18-19, 1 Tim. 2.1-2, Jas. 1.5-6, 3 Jn. vs. 1-2. God promises to hear and answer the prayers of His people: Matt. 7.7-8. He hears all of our wants and wishes. He hears everything, every prayer.
- Stanza 4, prayer is communion with God and a glimpse of heaven- In this life, our basic communion with God is through prayer: Eph. 2.18, 3.12. While in the flesh, Jesus often took time to commune with God in prayer: Matt. 14.23, Mk. 1.35, Lk. 5.16.But just as Moses went up to Mt. Pisgah’s lofty height to meet His Maker (Deut. 34.1-6), when we attain to heaven, we shall have continual communion directly with God and thus no longer need of prayer: Rev. 4.9-11, 5.13-14
- Prayer is a privilege –In prayer, we, as Christians, have an opportunity to talk to God. Talk to Him about our cares, our wants, our wishes, and our frustrations. We don’t have to be lofty, eloquent, repetitious, or even grammatically correct. We can just talk to God.
- Prayer is a refuge – Probably the most memorable line of this hymn is “In seasons of distress and grief, my soul has often found relief.” Often times during various trials in our life, we refocus on God and spend more time in prayer. During that time of talking and listening to God, He teaches us to lean on Him and trust in Him. How much better it would be to not wait until the times of distress and grief in our lives to have a habit of talking to God. There is an old commercial from years gone by that asks the question “How do you spell relief?” I think the answer is P-R-A-Y-E-R.
Finally, there is a line in the final verse that reminds me of fishing. In fishing, there is a common practice of “catch and release.” The concept is fairly simple. You catch the fish, and then release it back to swim another day. In the last line of this hymn, the author says he will “cast” and “wait.” We should cast our burdens on the Lord and then wait. Wait for His answer. Wait for the situation to be worked out in His time. Wait for Him to change our hearts or the hearts of others around us. We probably do an okay job of “casting” – letting God know about our problems and concerns. The question is how good are we at waiting? I challenge you to spend some time in prayer – time talking, time listening, and time waiting. Maybe even try it for an hour. You may then be able to say – How “sweet” it is!
I have always wondered why I have never seen a hymnbook which includes all four stanzas of this hymn. At least, none in my somewhat extensive collection do. Throughout the ages, the people of God have understood the essentiality of keeping a close relationship with God through the avenue of prayer. The life of this hymn’s author may well have been filled with troubles, since there are references to them in the song. But it shows how he used prayer to lift him above his troubles. And in times of stress we too can find peace for our souls by having a “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”