The history of one of the most beloved hymns about prayer is somewhat of a mystery. “Sweet Hour of Prayer” appeared as a poem in 1845. It had apparently been submitted by Reverend Thomas Salmon, who served four years as a Congregational minister in the village of Coleshill in Warwickshire, England. The traditional story is that in 1842 Salmon visited a curio shop where he met William W. Walford, a blind, old lay preacher in the village. Walford was known to compose poems in his head and had much of the Bible committed to memory. He asked Salmon to transcribe his newest poem. When Salmon came to America three years later, he showed it to the editor of “The New York Observer,” and it was printed in the paper. After seeing the poem in the newspaper, William Bradbury composed the tune and published the hymn in his 1861 hymnbook, “The Golden Chain.”
For some time, hymnologists have questioned the authorship of this hymn. After considerable research, not much information has been found about a blind preacher named William W. Walford, who lived in Coleshill at that time. The name doesn’t appear in any directory or church register. William Walford, however, was a common name in the area, but none seems to be the poem’s author. However, there was a Reverend William Walford, who lived in Homerton, more than one hundred miles away, who had written a book on prayer. There is no mention of blindness in his autobiography, just references to what would be called a nervous breakdown today. There are striking similarities and a similar spirit between the book on prayer and the hymn. Some suggest that this William Walford retired to Coleshill, and an illness may have affected his eyesight. When Salmon gave Walford’s poem to the newspaper, his details about him may have been confused.
One thing is certain: a William Walford wrote the hymn and described the blessing of personal prayer that makes it a beautiful experience for the believer. During the 19th century, “sweet” often meant respected, indicating that the time of prayer is held in high honor and is of great importance. The Bible speaks of prayer in both the Old and New Testaments, and Christians are to approach the Father’s throne boldly with their praise and requests. Stanza two, often omitted from hymnals, expresses the joy of prayer. The last stanza, also often omitted, speaks of prayer as being a source of consolation (Philippians 4:6-7). The final stanza also pictures Moses upon Mount Pisgah at the end of his life, gazing toward the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1).
The “Sweet Hour of Prayer” tune was named after the text and is the only tune to which this hymn is sung. Bradbury suggested that the tempo should not drag, and the accompaniment should be soft. The hymn stresses the importance of prayer, as Paul often did:
“Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.” (Ephesians 6:18)
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!
The joy I feel, the bliss I share
Of those whose anxious spirits burn
With strong desire for thy return!
With such I hasten to the place
Where God, my Saviour, shows his face,
And gladly take my station there,
To wait for thee, 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 ev’ry care,
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!
May I thy consolation share
Till from mount Pisgah’s lofty height
I view my heav’n, and at the sight,
Put off the robe of flesh and rise
To seize the everlasting prize;
Shouting, as I pass through the air,
“Farewell! Farewell! sweet hour of prayer.”
All rights reserved. Without the express written permission of the publisher, this publication may not be reproduced or transmitted, whether in whole or in part, in any form or by any means - electronic, mechanical, photocopy, storage retrieval system, recording, or any other.