O God Our Help in Ages Past


ON Sunday, services of remembrance will be held at war memorials in towns and villages all over the country, each with its list of names of those who died to keep Britain free from tyranny.

At many of these services the hymn O God Our Help in Ages Past will be sung. It was written in 1708 by the English clergyman Isaac Watts (1674-1748), who wrote about 750 hymns and is sometimes called the Godfather of English Hymnody. One of his works was the carol Joy to the World, which I wrote about here. In the piece I outlined his life.

Watts based his hymn on Psalm 90:

1 Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God.

3 Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

4 For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.

5 Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

6 In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

7 For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.

8 Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance.

9 For all our days are passed away in thy wrath: we spend our years as a tale that is told.

10 The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

11 Who knoweth the power of thine anger? even according to thy fear, so is thy wrath.

12 So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

13 Return, O Lord, how long? and let it repent thee concerning thy servants.

14 O satisfy us early with thy mercy; that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

15 Make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil.

16 Let thy work appear unto thy servants, and thy glory unto their children.

17 And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. (King James Version)

He called it Our God Our Help in Ages Past and there were nine verses. In 1738, John Wesley, changed the first line of the text from ‘Our God’ to ‘O God’. Both versions are in use. Usually only six verses are sung. Here they are:

1 O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home:

2 Beneath the shadow of your throne
your people lived secure;
sufficient is your arm alone,
and our defence is sure.

3 Before the hills in order stood,
or earth from darkness came,
from everlasting you are God,
to endless years the same.

4 A thousand ages in your sight
are like an evening gone;
short is the watch that ends the night,
before the rising sun.

5 Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
will bear us all away;
we pass forgotten, as a dream
dies with the dawning day.

6 O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come:
be our defence while life shall last,
and our eternal home!

The hymn is most often sung to a tune composed by William Croft in the same year as Watts wrote the words, 1708. Croft was the organist of St Anne’s Church, Soho, and he called the tune St Anne.

In August 1941 it was sung at a service aboard HMS Prince of Wales during the conference between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt which created the Atlantic Charter.

Churchill wrote later:

‘On Sunday morning, August 10, Mr. Roosevelt came aboard H.M.S. Prince of Wales and, with his Staff officers and several hundred representatives of all ranks of the United States Navy and Marines, attended Divine Service on the quarterdeck.

‘This service was felt by us all to be a deeply moving expression of the unity of faith of our two peoples, and none who took part in it will forget the spectacle presented that sunlit morning on the crowded quarterdeck – the symbolism of the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes draped side by side on the pulpit; the American and British chaplains sharing in the reading of the prayers; the highest naval, military, and air officers of Britain and the United States grouped in one body behind the President and me; the close-packed ranks of British and American sailors, completely intermingled, sharing the same books and joining fervently together in the prayers and hymns familiar to both.

‘I chose the hymns myself – “For Those in Peril on the Sea” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” We ended with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides had chanted as they bore John Hampden’s body to the grave*.

‘Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live. Nearly half those who sang were soon to die.’

On December 10, 1941, three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, HMS Prince of Wales was sunk alongside the battlecruiser HMS Repulse by Japanese bombers. A total of 840 sailors were lost: 513 from Repulse and 327 from Prince of Wales.

The service on Prince of Wales is covered in this piece of film, but not O God Our Help in Ages Past. However I thought you would like to see it.

The hymn was sung at the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington DC on September 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Here it is at the Cenotaph remembrance service in Whitehall in 2011

And here is a typical village service from 2012:

* John Hampden was one of the Five Members whose attempted unconstitutional arrest by King Charles I in the House of Commons in 1642 sparked the English Civil War.

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