Saturday, April 8, 2017

Savior Breathe an Evening Blessing -- James Edmeston (and Edward Henry Bickersteth, Jr.)

One can imagine this English composer (see the flag of England here) sat one Sunday evening in 1820, perhaps with some boys and girls that he mentored and whom he decided needed a lullaby. James Edmeston was a professional at something other than hymnwriting, yet he apparently took his avocation for song-making pretty seriously – probably about as seriously as he did his faith in God. So, when he called on Him with a request to “(Savior) Breathe an Evening Blessing”, he wasn’t just marking time with a hobby. He was doing what he’d do for most of his life. It lasted and impacted another composer (Edward Henry Bickersteth, Jr.) over a half-century later, so that another two verses were added to Edmeston’s initial words. People come and go, but the human need for rest and reassurance every evening continues. 

James Edmeston was an architect and surveyor, but that wasn’t the sum of his life when he was 29 years old. He was the grandson of a minister, which evidently ingrained in James the Christian faith that he adhered to with conviction. He served in several positions of responsibility in the church where he was a member, perhaps serving most notably by crafting a hymn for each Sunday – up to 2,000, meaning he would have been faithful to that undertaking for nearly 40 years. Besides a professional and religious life that occupied his time, James was also reportedly a frequent visitor at the London Orphan Asylum, where he evidently crafted many hymns for the resident children. “Savior, Breathe…” has words that suggest he was trying to close a day with a prayer for rest and comfort, either for himself or others. Who would have needed that kind of entreaty in James’s life more than a group of orphans? The orphanage had only recently been established (in 1813) by a minister (Andrew Reed) in the London area, but whether James knew him or what prompted Edmeston’s involvement with the orphanage are not known. If he wanted to write song verses, perhaps he felt the orphans were a worthy environment where he could minister and simultaneously practice his hymn-writing. Whatever James Edmeston’s reason for ministry to the orphans, his hymn-poem may have been concrete evidence that he reached out to needy children who needed an adult in their lives. Did James have any children of his own? He may have in fact been the surrogate parent to many more children than he otherwise would have fathered naturally.    

Abandonment, loneliness, and disaffection are traits that James Edmeston may have observed as he visited orphans in London in 1820. That downward spiral would be hard to stop without a constant, reliable presence in a child’s life. Apparently, that’s what James tried to do during his time here on earth. “Savior, Breathe…” may have been a prayer he said for himself, or it may have been one he taught children to sing, as a father teaches and encourages his offspring. If it was the latter, James gave the children a bonus -- not only his own presence, but a supernatural one. As he might have said to the youngsters, ‘are we ever really alone, if He’s with us?” See if that helps you sleep better tonight.     

Brief biography of primary composer (vv.1-4) is here:

The orphanage where the composer was active is referenced here:
Secondary composer’s (verses  5+6) biography here:

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