"SWEET HOUR OF PRAYER"
"Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer…" (Acts 3.1)
INTRO.: A beloved hymn which stresses the importance of prayer is "Sweet Hour of Prayer" (#73 in Hymns for Worship Revised, and #23 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text of this song is of ambiguous origin. Thomas Salmon, a Congregational minister, claimed that in 1842 he stopped by the trinket shop of an old, blind, and uneducated carver named William W. Walford, who also did some preaching around Coleshill in Warwickshire, England, near where Salmon lived. Walford had just completed a poem on prayer in his mind and asked Salmon to set it down on paper. Salmon came to the United States three years later and showed the poem to the editor of the New York Observer, who published it in 1845. However, there is no record of a blind, wood-carving preacher named William W. Walford ever living near Coleshill.
Yet, there was a William W. Walford who was born at Bath in Somersetshire, England, in 1772. Educated at Homerton Academy, he became a Congregational minister, serving churches in Suffolk and Norfolk, and then worked as a classical tutor at Homerton. Also, he was minister at Uxbridge in Middlesex for two terms, after which he retired. His death occured at Uxbridge on June 22, 1850. Were the Walfords of Coleshill and Homerton the same man? There are vague references in the latter’s autobiography to a prolonged period of serious illness which might correspond to the break in his labors at Uxbridge, and it is possible that during this time he may have retired to Coleshill and pursued the hobby of woodcarving and done some preaching. His eyesight may have been affected as well, but Salmon may have been ignorant of his past. It is interesting that in 1836 Walford had written a book entitled The Manner of Prayer, which bears some striking resemblances to the hymn.
Others believe that perhaps Salmon or someone else had read Walford’s book to a blind, wood-carving preacher near Coleshill, possibly even with a similar name, who produced the poem, and Salmon’s calling the hymnwriter Walford may have just involved a slip of the memory. No one knows for sure. In any event, the hymn’s first appearance in a hymnbook, with words only, was in the 1859 edition of Church Melodies, compiled by Robert Turnbull and Thomas Hastings. The tune (Sweet Hour) was composed by William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-1868). After seeing the poem in a newspaper, he produced the music and published the hymn in his 1861 hymnbook The Golden Chain. Sometimes the source is given as Bradbury’s 1859 Cottage Melodies. However, the song did not appear in the first edition but was apparently inserted in later printings after 1861.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1) and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 both edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today it is found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 (Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; as well as Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.
This hymn helps to explain many of the blessings of prayer that make it so sweet.
I. According to stanza 1, prayer is a relief and escape from the devil’s snare
"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!
A. We can resist the devil: Jas. 4.7, 1 Pet. 5.8-9
B. But escaping the tempter’s snare includes prayer: Matt. 6.12-13, 26.41
C. Also, we must ask forgiveness of sins in prayer: Acts 8.22
II. According to stanza 2, prayer is a time for joy and bliss
"Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer! The joy 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!"
A. Christians are to be joyful: Phil. 4.4, 1 Jn. 1.4
B. Prayer is one way to express our joy and bliss: Col. 4.2, Heb. 13.15
C. Because of this, we should pray always, everywhere, boldly, and fervently: Lk. 18.1, 1 Tim. 2.8, Heb. 4.16, Jas. 5.16
III. According to stanza 3, prayer is an opportunity to make known our wishes, cares, and petitions to God
"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!"
A. This is God’s will: Phil. 4.6-7, 1 Pet. 5.7
B. 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
C. God promises to hear and answer the prayers of His people: Matt. 7.7-8
IV. According to stanza 4, prayer is communion with God and a glimpse of heaven
"Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer! May I thy consolation share,
Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height, I view my home and take my flight.
This robe of flesh I’ll drop and rise To seize the everlasting prize;
And shout, while passing through the air, ‘Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!’"
A. In this life, our basic communion with God is through prayer: Eph. 2.18, 3.12
B. While in the flesh, Jesus often took time to commune with God in prayer: Matt. 14.23, Mk. 1.35, Lk. 5.16
C. 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
CONCL.: I have always wondered why I have never seen a hymnbook, published either by our brethren or by other sources, 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."
Regarding the fouth stanza, I have an Army and Navy Song and Service Book for Ship and Field, published in1941 by A S Barnes & Co of New York.
This has stanzas 1, 2 and 4 but misses stanza 3.
Perhaps it does not accord with the target audience of men under arms, singing well known hymns at drum head services.
It has been in my possession for as long as I can remember after I found it in a book shop in the 50's while serving in the RAF at RAF Watton in Norfolk.. We had a lot of USAF men stationed in the area and I suspect it was left behind by one of them. It found a good home with me as I have treasured it ever since.
Further to my previous comment, Sweet Hour of Prayer is a very well liked song in the Barbershop style.
I am not sure who wrote the arrangement, but it has been sung and recorded by many of the top choruses, including Masters of Harmony, The Ambassadors of Harmony and the mighty Vocal Majority.
To add to the list, I direct a small (20 man) barbershop chorus, MK Acapella, here in the UK and the song is in our repertoire. It is a favourite with the members of the chorus and it has a powerful effect on our audiences.
I cannot even fathom words to say how this song helped me through my homelessness. I too was walking in the shadows of death, but I feared not, because prayer and communing with Jesus through His Father kept me.