Thursday, June 6, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember George Matheson, the blind Scottish pastor famous for, among other things, a classic hymn.

It is the 6th of June 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


There is a genre of Christian writing: “the stories behind your favorite hymns” I will admit I am a sucker for these kinds of works- after all, we sing these songs as great communal theological confessions. Some of the pique moments of Christian Worship take place when reciting the words of other Christians, so it would make sense that we would want to know why they wrote what they wrote.  

With early vernacular hymns, it is often the translation of a psalm into common parlance with reference to Christ- see Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” (Psalm 46) or Watt’s “Joy to the World” (Psalm 98).

But sometimes these stories flatten out otherwise fascinating characters- such is the case with George Matheson, the 19th-century Scottish preacher whose life is often condensed to: “blind, he also wrote O love that Will Not Let me Go”- which is true, and interesting, but so too is the whole life of Matheson which does allow us to speculate on the events leading up to the composition of the famous hymn.

George was born in Glasgow on March 27th in 1840. He was the first son and the second of eight children to George and Jane Matheson- George sr. was a businessman who kept the family in middle to upper-middle-class status. His mother was a gifted singer and taught her son from her gift. But she had also noticed something wrong with George’s eyesight- from 18 months, it was determined that there was inflammation in the back of his eye and that it was incurable and would eventually lead to total blindness.  

Matheson would attend the Glasgow Academy from the age of 13 before heading off to Glasgow University. Had it not been for his eyesight, he would have trained for the bar, but by 18, he was almost completely blind. He would graduate with a B.A. in 1861 and an M.A. in 1862- he used thick glasses and sat by the window for natural light but began to learn the new art of braille and being read to while also dictating his work. Later in life, he learned to use a typewriter.

Matheson would train for the ministry and was ordained by the Presbytery of Glasgow in 1866 and was invited to serve as an assistant pastor at his home church. He would take his first job as a sole pastor in 1868 in Innellan on the Firth of Clyde. There was an objection to hiring a blind pastor, but with his sister's help, he was able to tend to the job and became increasingly popular as a preacher (many didn’t know that he was blind as they assumed he was looking down at his notes). The church had to hold extra services on account of his popularity, and he came to the attention of both the poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria, who invited him to preach at Balmoral Castle.

It was in 1882, at the age of 40, that Matheson recalled the precise evening and events leading to the composition of his famous hymn- he wrote:

“on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. 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. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.”

The hymn was “O Love that Will Not Let Me Go”- we will hear from it at the conclusion of today’s show. Mathewson would go on to be a preacher in Edinburgh, where his fame as “the blind preacher” led to being feted with honorary degrees and titles. He gave many a popular lecture and wrote a few books, but his name will forever be attached to the famous hymn he wrote in 5 minutes on the 6th of June in 1882.

Matheson would die in 1906; born in 1842, the author of O Love that will not let me go” was 64 years old.


 The last word for today is from Matheson’s hymn:

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;

I give Thee back the life I owe,

That in Thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from Thee;

I lay in dust life’s glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 6th of June 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man who was also once convinced he had received a song form on high until his kids told him it was just the tune from the commercial for moderate to severe plaque psoriasis- He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who can hum the songs from all the creepy prescription medicine commercials- I’m  Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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