Thirty years ago, on Sunday 17th December 1989, I preached to a little congregation in Liverpool. I was a local preacher then, and heavily pregnant with my second baby. On the following Sunday (Christmas Eve), Jacob was born.
What I had preached on that Sunday morning was what it must have been like for Mary. My first labour had been rather short, and during the early months of this second pregnancy I suppose I had rather revelled in the possibility that this second baby might be born somewhere odd and exciting. But as the due date approached, I really just wanted to be at the hospital, where everything was nice and clean, and where there were people who knew what they were doing.
Poor Mary gave birth at the equivalent of the roadside, and the cleanest place she could find to put her baby was the animals’ feeding trough. It must have been really awful for her. Standing before that congregation, I felt that I was standing with Mary in her anxiety about the coming birth. But more importantly, she was standing with us. Or rather, in allowing his Son to be born in this way, God was standing with humankind in all the muck and misery of life, and especially with the poor, and those far from home, without a clean, warm place to sleep.
On the evening of August 16th 1762, John Wesley came to Derby. He did not intend to preach but to visit a Mr and Mrs Dobinson, who recently had left London to settle in Derby. They sympathised with the new evangelistic movement. There was a Divinity shaping his ends! The people, hearing of Wesley’s visit, crowded the house. He could not hold his peace. “I spoke to them for half-an-hour …. and then spent some time in prayer.” That night God created the Methodist church in our town. Within two years, the first Methodist church in Derbyshire was built.
This historic sanctuary still stands in St Michael’s Lane, near the Conference Church. It is now used as an organ builder’s workshop. Many mighty men and movements are associated with it. There John and Charles Wesley preached several times, as also did “Fletcher of Madely”, Jabez Bunting and other Methodist heroes.
Among the first to join the new society was George Cooper who became Derby’s first Methodist local preacher. His great grandson, Rev Robert Lamplough, who in 1887 became President of the South African Conference, studied under a Derby mathematician, whose wife was a member of Mrs Lamplough’s society class. One of the sons of this tutor and his worthy spouse, is known throughout the world as the eminent English philosopher, Herbert Spencer.
This hymn was composed by George Matheson (1842-1906) a well-known Scottish Minister. He was born with only partial sight, but nevertheless did well at Glasgow University, earning a first in the Classics. He felt called to ordination, but by the time he entered the seminary in Edinburgh, he was totally blind. It is told that at this time, he needed to face the additional blow of his fiancé leaving him, because she felt she could not deal with his disability. One of his sisters taught herself Hebrew, Greek and Latin to help him in his theological studies, and she remained with him to support him in his preaching and pastoral ministry all his life.
There are several conjectures regarding the cause of the mental distress which led Matheson to write the words of this beautiful hymn. One of the most popular is that, on the day of the marriage of his other sister, he remembered the love he had lost when his fiancé left him. There are many significant hints in the hymn that might support this, such as the ‘flickering torch’ and the ‘borrowed ray’ in the second verse, the ‘tracing of the rainbow through the rain’ in the third and the ‘cross’ in the last verse. Matheson himself left an account of his writing of the hymn, but without any direct reference to this, but this could be because of the typical reserve of the Victorian period. He explained ‘… something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering …’ What is especially interesting is that Matheson said that the hymn was the result of a special inspiration, and that he completed it in five minutes without any need for correction. He explained that he ‘… had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice …’ His other famous hymn Make me a captive Lord and I shall be free was a product of his usual method of careful crafting and Matheson concluded that ‘… I have never been able to gain once more the same fervour in verse …’
The tune (St Margaret) was written by Albert Peace (1844-1912) specifically for this hymn a year later, and he had a similar experience. He explained: ‘… After reading it over carefully, I wrote the music straight off, and may say that the ink of the first note was hardly dry when I had finished the tune.’
I have no reason to doubt the credibility of both stories of words and music, and it has been my experience that whether reading these inspired words alone or singing them to this inspired tune, I too know the joys of being able to ‘trace the rainbow’ through whatever rain might be my life experience at the time, and even in the best of times, of being truly blessed by them.
The Revd David Owen
Postscript by Trish Owen:
The ribbon in my beautiful leather-bound edition of Hymns and Psalms stays permanently at this hymn. It is deeply personal to me having seen me through David serious illness, when our son was just two years old and the death of close family members. I remember particularly ‘And from the ground where blossoms read, life that shall endless be.’