This text was written by John Ellerton (1826-1893), an English country priest who enjoyed not only composing sacred verse (“The Day Thou Gavest, Lord is Ended”) but was a frequent collaborator on that great nineteenth-century English hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861, although this hymn did not appear until the 1868 edition.)
Ellerton closes the first stanza of the original hymn with the lines, “We stand to bless Thee ere our worship cease; Then, lowly kneeling, wait Thy word of peace.” Anglican worship involves the body and all the senses, as reflected in liturgical postures. The second stanza concludes in the original, “Guard Thou the lips from sin, the hearts from shame, That in this house have call’d upon Thy Name.” This is a prayer for sanctification, and the term “name” is used in a Wesleyan/Hebrew context. When Jacob struggled with God in Genesis 32, Jacob implored God to tell him His name. This God would not do, rather choosing to bless him instead. To the Hebrews, one’s name was not merely a conglomeration of syllables, but it encompassed one’s essence and was completely inseparable from one’s personality; hence, such attention was paid to Jesus naming before His birth. In Ellerton’s hymn we acknowledge that we have invoked God’s name in worship but, in so doing, we likewise realize we have been in His very presence through Word and sacrament.
The original third stanza (slightly altered in the Episcopal hymn) is uniquely British—“Grant us Thy peace, Lord, through the coming night; Turn Thou for us its darkness into light; From harm and danger keep Thy children free, For dark and light are both alike to Thee.” In the British Isles, where it is known to be sunny for about a week in July and rather gloomy much the rest of the year, the appearance of the sun greatly contrasted with the gloom of darkness, and hymnwriters were continuously making theological comparisons. (Another Victorian hymn which does this is “Abide with Me.”)
Ellerton here prays for peace “throughout our earthly life, our balm in sorrow, and our stay in strife.” Ellerton is setting the world in a typical Victorian context. The world is “very evil,” society is full of “change and decay” (“Abide with me”), but only God remains constant, a “rock and fortress.” (Ps. 46) This was not only a theological but a national perspective. British society was no longer the pinnacle of Western society. Yet, God still offered his grace and redemption to all. In the closing words of another Ellerton hymn (“The Day Thou Gavest”), we as Americans might do good to remember the humility of those Victorians of ages past:
So be it, Lord; Thy Throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away;
Thy Kingdom stands, and grows forever, Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.