Reginald Heber was born in 1783 into a wealthy, educated family. He was a bright youth, translating a Latin classic into English verse by the time he was seven, entering Oxford at 17, and winning two awards for his poetry during his time there. After his graduation he became rector of his father's church in the village of Hodnet near Shrewsbury in the west of England where he remained for 16 years. He was appointed Bishop of Calcutta in 1823 and worked tirelessly for three years until the weather and travel took its toll on his health and he died of a stroke. Most of his 57 hymns, which include "Holy, Holy, Holy," are still in use today.
-- Greg Scheer, 1995
Heber, Reginald, D.D. Born at Malpas, April 21, 1783, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford; Vicar of Hodnet, 1807; Bishop of Calcutta, 1823; died at Trichinopoly, India, April 3, 1826. The gift of versification shewed itself in Heber's childhood; and his Newdigate prize poem Palestine, which was read to Scott at breakfast in his rooms at Brazenose, Oxford, and owed one of its most striking passages to Scott's suggestion, is almost the only prize poem that has won a permanent place in poetical literature. His sixteen years at Hodnet, where he held a halfway position between a parson and a squire, were marked not only by his devoted care of his people, as a parish priest, but by literary work. He was the friend of Milman, Gifford, Southey, and others, in the world of letters, endeared to them by his candour, gentleness, "salient playfulness," as well as learning and culture. He was on the original staff of The Quarterly Review; Bampton Lecturer (1815); and Preacher at Lincoln's Inn (1822). His edition of Jeremy Taylor is still the classic edition. During this portion of his life he had often had a lurking fondness for India, had traced on the map Indian journeys, and had been tempted to wish himself Bishop of Calcutta. When he was forty years old the literary life was closed by his call to the Episcopate. No memory of Indian annals is holier than that of the three years of ceaseless travel, splendid administration, and saintly enthusiasm, of his tenure of the see of Calcutta. He ordained the first Christian native—Christian David. His first visitation ranged through Bengal, Bombay, and Ceylon; and at Delhi and Lucknow he was prostrated with fever. His second visitation took him through the scenes of Schwartz's labours in Madras Presidency to Trichinopoly, where on April 3,1826, he confirmed forty-two persons, and he was deeply moved by the impression of the struggling mission, so much so that “he showed no appearance of bodily exhaus¬tion." On his return from the service
”He retired into his own room, and according to his invariable custom, wrote on the back of the address on Confirmation 'Trichinopoly, April 3, 1826.' This was his last act, for immediately on taking off his clothes, he went into a large cold bath, where he had bathed the two preceding mornings, but which was now the destined agent of his removal to Paradise. Half an hour after, his servant, alarmed at his long absence, entered the room and found him a lifeless corpse." Life, &c, 1830, vol. ii. p. 437.
Heber's hymns were all written during the Hodnet period. Even the great missionary hymn, "From Greenland's icy mountains," notwithstanding the Indian allusions ("India's coral strand," "Ceylon's isle"), was written before he received the offer of Calcutta. The touching funeral hymn, "Thou art gone to the grave," was written on the loss of his first babe, which was a deep grief to him. Some of the hymns were published (1811-16) in the Christian Observer, the rest were not published till after his death. They formed part of a ms. collection made for Hodnet (but not published), which contained, besides a few hymns from older and special sources, contributions by Milman. The first idea of the collection appears in a letter in 1809 asking for a copy of the Olney Hymns, which he "admired very much." The plan was to compose hymns connected with the Epistles and Gospels, to be sung after the Nicene Creed. He was the first to publish sermons on the Sunday services (1822), and a writer in The Guardian has pointed out that these efforts of Heber were the germs of the now familiar practice, developed through the Christian Year (perhaps following Ken's Hymns on the Festivals), and by Augustus Hare, of welding together sermon, hymnal, and liturgy. Heber tried to obtain from Archbishop Manners Sutton and the Bishop of London (1820) authorization of his ms. collection of hymns by the Church, enlarging on the "powerful engine" which hymns were among Dissenters, and the irregular use of them in the church, which it was impossible to suppress, and better to regulate. The authorization was not granted. The lyric spirit of Scott and Byron passed into our hymns in Heber's verse; imparting a fuller rhythm to the older measures, as illustrated by "Oh, Saviour, is Thy promise fled," or the martial hymn, "The Son of God goes forth to war;" pressing into sacred service the freer rhythms of contemporary poetry (e.g. "Brightest and best of the sons of the morning"; "God that madest earth and heaven"); and aiming at consistent grace of literary expression.. Their beauties and faults spring from this modern spirit. They have not the scriptural strength of our best early hymns, nor the dogmatic force of the best Latin ones. They are too flowing and florid, and the conditions of hymn composition are not sufficiently understood. But as pure and graceful devotional poetry, always true and reverent, they are an unfailing pleasure. The finest of them is that majestic anthem, founded on the rhythm of the English Bible, "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty." The greatest evidence of Heber's popularity as a hymnwriter, and his refined taste as a compiler, is found in the fact that the total contents of his ms. collection which were given in his posthumous Hymns written and adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. London, J. Murray, 1827; which included 57 hymns by Heber, 12 by Milman, and 29 by other writers, are in common in Great Britain and America at the present time. [Rev. H. Leigh Bennett, M.A.]
Of Bishop Heber's hymns, about one half are annotated under their respective first lines. Those given below were published in Heber's posthumous Hymns, &c, 1827. Some of them are in extensive use in Great Britain and America; but as they possess no special histories they are grouped together as from the Hymns, &c, 1827:—
1. Beneath our feet, and o'er our head. Burial.
2. Creator of the rolling flood. St. Peter's Day, or, Gospel for 6th Sunday after Trinity.
3. Lo, the lilies of the field. Teachings of Nature: or, Gospel for 15th Sunday after Trinity.
4. 0 God, by Whom the seed is given. Sexagesima.
6. 0 God, my sins are manifold. Forgiveness, or,
Gospel for 22nd S. after Trinity.
6. 0 hand of bounty, largely spread. Water into Wine, or, Gospel for 2nd S. after Epiphany.
7. 0 King of earth, and air, and sea. Feeding the Multitude; or, Gospel for 4th S. in Lent.
8. 0 more than merciful, Whose bounty gave. Good Friday.
9. 0 most merciful! 0 most bountiful. Introit Holy Communion.
10. 0 Thou, Whom neither time nor space. God unsearchable, or, Gospel for 5th Sunday in Lent.
11. 0 weep not o'er thy children's tomb. Innocents Day.
12. Room for the proud! Ye sons of clay. Dives and Lazarus, or, Gospel for 1st Sunday after Trinity.
13. Sit thou on my right hand, my Son, saith the Lord. Ascension.
14. Spirit of truth, on this thy day. Whit-Sunday.
15. The feeble pulse, the gasping breath. Burial, or, Gospel for 1st S. after Trinity.
16. The God of glory walks His round. Septuagesima, or, the Labourers in the Marketplace.
17. The sound of war in earth and air. Wrestling against Principalities and Powers, or, Epistle for 2lst Sunday after Trinity.
18. The world is grown old, her pleasures are past. Advent; or, Epistle for 4th Sunday in Advent.
19. There was joy in heaven. The Lost Sheep; or, Gospel for 3rd S. after Trinity.
20. Though sorrows rise and dangers roll. St. James's Day.
21. To conquer and to save, the Son of God. Christ the Conqueror.
22. Virgin-born, we bow before Thee. The Virgin Mary. Blessed amongst women, or, Gospel for 3rd S. in Lent.
23. Wake not, 0 mother, sounds of lamentation. Raising the Widow's Son, or, Gospel for 16th S. after Trinity.
24. When on her Maker's bosom. Holy Matrimony, or, Gospel for 2nd S. after Epiphany.
25. When through the torn sail the wild tempest is streaming. Stilling the Sea, or, Gospel for 4th Sunday after Epiphany.
26. Who yonder on the desert heath. The Good Samaritan, or, Gospel for 13th Sunday after Trinity.
This list is a good index of the subjects treated of in those of Heber's hymns which are given under their first lines, and shows that he used the Gospels far more than the Epistles in his work.
--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)