His Hymns Make Souls Feel Whole: Horatius Bonar (1808–1889)

Today we can rejoice that Horatius Bonar found a way of expressing his theology, poetry, and heart’s doxology in hymnody.

Bonar’s hymns are usually simple, but not simplistic; poetic and yet clearly theological; and the best of them focus on the person of the Lord Jesus, his atoning work, coming to him in faith, living unreservedly for him, and anticipating future glory. In these hymns, the heart of the gospel is always found in Jesus Christ, at the cross, in substitutionary atonement. For him — as for Paul — this was a personal work of Christ, accomplished in love for us, on our behalf and in our place (“The Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me,” Galatians 2:20). 

 

If you could choose a century and a country, not to live in, but to visit in order to listen to preaching, what would it be?

A case could be made for the sixteenth century if you enjoy Geneva, and Calvin is a hero to you. There is certainly something attractive about London in the seventeenth century — imagine hearing John Bunyan, Thomas Watson, John Owen, and dozens of others — some of them preaching within a few minutes’ walk of each other. Or perhaps you would prefer to be there two centuries later to hear C.H. Spurgeon.

For myself, I think I would choose “my ain folk” and visit Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. To be able to hear Thomas Chalmers, Hugh Martin, William Cunningham, George Smeaton, William Chalmers Burns, Robert Murray M’Cheyne, John Kennedy of Dingwall, John MacDonald of Ferintosh. That would be a treat.

I belong to St Peter’s Free Church in Dundee. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was our first minister. Sometimes I lean against the wall and whimsically ask it, “What was it like in the 1830s and early 1840s?” Sitting here I might, at times, have been able to hear a minister with poetry in his soul — Horatius Bonar.

Undivided Service

Horatius Bonar was born into a comfortable middle-class family in Edinburgh in 1808 and died there in 1889. His father was a solicitor (attorney), but the Bonar family line gave many ministers to the Presbyterian Church — including his older brother John James, and the better-known younger brother Andrew.

Horatius Bonar’s life is simply told. Andrew Somerville, one of the close-knit “M’Cheyne Circle” of his student days, said, following his death:

He lived for the long space of eighty years maintaining a Christian and unblemished life in this world of sin, treachery, and unrighteousness. From the day of his conversion at an early season of life, he laid all the resources of his being at the feet of Jesus, consecrating his scholarship, his distinguished abilities, and all the energies of his nature, that he might undividedly serve on earth his heavenly Master.

Horatius (“Horace” to his friends) graduated from the University of Edinburgh, was an assistant minister in Leith (the city’s port), served faithfully from 1837 in the Scottish Borders town of Kelso, and then was called in 1866 to the new charge of Chalmers Memorial Church in Edinburgh (named after his great professor). Here he ministered until his death in 1889.

During his life he edited various Christian magazines, including The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy (he was deeply committed to premillennial eschatology), wrote many outstanding tracts (he had a great heart for pointing others to Christ), and a number of best-selling books (God’s Way of Peace and God’s Way of Holiness being perhaps the best known; they are still in print today). In 1843, at The Disruption, he was one of more than four hundred ministers who sacrificed their livings and manses in the Church of Scotland to form the Free Church of Scotland.

Bonar requested that no biography of him should be written (although he himself wrote two biographies of others), and those who knew him best honored his request. But there is so much that could be written about his faithfulness in ministry, his friendships, and his fruitfulness. He experienced deep wounds during his life in the loss of five children; occasionally he was caught up in sharp controversy — on one occasion over his support for D.L. Moody, on another over the use of hymns (rather than only psalms, and in some instances, paraphrases) in public worship. To tell those stories would require a separate essay. But two features of his ministry tell us much about the man.

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