“The author of the hymn, Henry Francis Lyte, was an Anglican minister. He was a curate in County Wexford from 1815 to 1818. According to a plaque erected in his memory in Taghmon Church, he preached frequently in Killurin Church, about nine miles from there. During that time the rector of Killurin Parish, the Reverend Abraham Swanne, was a lasting influence on Lyte’s life and ministry. Later he was vicar of All Saints’ Church in Brixham, Devon, England.
For most of his life Lyte suffered from poor health, and he would regularly travel abroad for relief, as was customary at that time.
There is some controversy as to the exact dating of the text to “Abide with Me”. An article in The Spectator, 3 Oct. 1925, says that Lyte composed the hymn in 1820 while visiting a dying friend. It was related that Lyte was staying with the Hore family in County Wexford and had visited an old friend, William Augustus Le Hunte, who was dying. As Lyte sat with the dying man, William kept repeating the phrase “abide with me…”. After leaving William’s bedside, Lyte wrote the hymn and gave a copy of it to Le Hunte’s family.
The belief is that when Lyte felt his own end approaching twenty-seven years later at the age of 54, as he developed tuberculosis, he recalled the lines he had written so many years before in County Wexford. The Biblical link for the hymn is Luke 24:29 in which the disciples asked Jesus to abide with them “for it is toward evening and the day is spent”. Using his friend’s more personal phrasing “Abide with Me”, Lyte composed the hymn. His daughter, Anna Maria Maxwell Hogg, recounts the story of how “Abide with Me” came out of that context:
The summer was passing away, and the month of September (that month in which he was once more to quit his native land) arrived, and each day seemed to have a special value as being one day nearer his departure. His family were surprised and almost alarmed at his announcing his intention of preaching once more to his people. His weakness and the possible danger attending the effort, were urged to prevent it, but in vain. “It was better”, as he used to say often playfully, when in comparative health, “to wear out than to rust out”. He felt that he should be enabled to fulfil his wish, and feared not for the result. His expectation was well founded. He did preach, and amid the breathless attention of his hearers, gave them a sermon on the Holy Communion … In the evening of the same day he placed in the hands of a near and dear relative the little hymn, “Abide with Me”, with an air of his own composing, adapted to the words.
Just weeks later, on 20 November 1847 in Nice, then in the Kingdom of Sardinia, Lyte died. The hymn was sung for the very first time at Lyte’s funeral. Special thanksgiving services to mark Lyte’s bicentenary were held in Taghmon and Killurin churches.
While he wrote a tune for the hymn, the most usual tune for the hymn is “Eventide” by William Henry Monk.
The hymn is a prayer for God to remain present with the speaker throughout life, through trials, and through death. The opening line alludes to Luke 24:29, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent”, and the penultimate verse draws on text from 1 Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?””