The Star of Bethlehem
Words: Henry Kirke White (1785-1806); appeared in Collyer's Collection, 1812
Source: William Bengo Collyer, ed., Hymns Partly Collected And Partly Original, Designed As A Supplement To Dr. Watt's Psalms and Hymns (Longman, 1812), "When Marshall'd On the Nightly Plain," #862, pp. 839-840.
1. When marshall'd on the nightly plain,
The glittering host bestud the sky;
One star alone, of all the train,
Can fix the sinner's wandering eye.
2. Hark! hark! to God the chorus breaks,
From every host, from every gem ;
But one alone the Saviour speaks,
It is the star of Bethlehem;
3. Once on the raging seas I rode,
The storm was loud—the night was dark,
The ocean yawn'd—and rudely blow'd,
The wind that toss'd my foundering bark.
4. Deep horror then my vitals froze,
Death-struck, I ceas'd the tide to stem;
When suddenly a star arose,
It was the star of Bethlehem.
5. It was my guide, my light, my all,
It bade my dark forebodings cease;
And through the storm and dangers thrall,
It led me to the port of peace.
6. Now safely moor'd— my perils o'er,
I'll sing, first in night's diadem,
For ever and for ever more,
The star!—the star of Bethlehem!
Also found as three verses of eight lines. As is often the case, editors of hymnals have taken liberties with the text of this hymn over the years. Most often, the first line is changed to "When marshalled on the mighty plain." According to Hymnary.org, this hymn has been reprinted in 457 hymnals. See When Marshalled On The Nightly Plain.
John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1892), p. 1271.
When marshall'd on the nightly plain. H. K. White. [The Star of Bethlehem.] Appeared in Collyer's Sel, 1812, No. 862, in 6 stanzas of 4 lines, and headed "The Star of Bethlehem." It has much biographical interest, in that it gives a poetical version of the author's change of mind from a species of scepticism to the faith of Christ. The special personal interest is introduced with stanza iii., "Once on the raging seas I rode." This also forms the beginning of a cento from this hymn given in one or two American hymnbooks.
Dr. Julian also had this note on the author, pp. 1275-1276:
Henry Kirke White, remarkable both for the early development of his genius and for the untimely termination of his brief life of splendid promise, was born at Nottingham, March 21,1785. His father was a butcher, but his mother must have been a superior woman, since for a number of years she successfully conducted a boarding-school for girls.
The writing-master in her establishment was for some time Henry's teacher, and under his instruction he made remarkable progress in Latin and other subjects. At the age of 13 he composed the lines "To an early Primrose," which were subsequently printed with his poems. At 14 he left school, and was put to the stocking-frame in order to learn practically the business of a hosier; but, disliking the employment, he was removed to an attorney's office in Nottingham, with a view to the legal profession. All his spare time was now devoted to literary pursuits, the acquisition of languages, and the composition of poetical and other contributions for the periodicals of the day. At the age of 15 he obtained from the Monthly Preceptor a silver medal for a translation from Horace, and a pair of globes for the best description of an imaginary tour from London to Edinburgh. When only 17 he was encouraged to publish his Clifton Grove and other Poems, which were certainly excellent as the compositions of a mere boy.
About this time he was inclined to scepticism, but. through the perusal of Scott's Force of Truth, and the arguments and appeals of a young friend, R. W. Almond (afterwards Rector of St. Peter's, Nottingham), he was led to earnest faith in Christianity. His well-known hymn "When marshall'd on the nightly plain" is understood to be a figurative description of his spiritual experience at this period. He now desired to become a Christian minister, and through the generosity of his employers he was released from his articles in 1804. With the help of the Rev. C. Simeon and other friends, he became a student of St. John's College, Cambridge.
There he speedily distinguished himself, and the highest honours seemed within his grasp ; but over application to study destroyed his health, and he fell ill and died Oct. 19, 1806, in the 22nd year of his age. Universal regret was expressed at his untimely end.
Southey published his Remains, accompanied by a short memoir. Lord Byron composed some beautiful lines on the sad event. Josiah Conder and others wrote commemorative verses. The entire literary young manhood of England and America seemed moved with sympathy. A monumental tablet, with a medallion by Chantrey, was erected in All Saints Church, Cambridge, at the expense of a citizen of Boston, in the United States.
Ten hymns are ascribed to H. K. White, which were printed by the Rev. Dr. W. B. Collyer in his Supplement to Dr. Watts's Psalms & Hymns, London 1812. Of these four of the most popular are annotated as follows: "Awake, sweet harp of Judah, wake," p. 103, ii. ; "Christians, brethren, ere we part," p. 231, ii.; "Much in sorrow, oft in woe," p. 773, ii.; "When marshalled on the nightly plain," p. 1271, i. These are all in extensive use.
The rest, all in C. U. at the present time, are:—
1. O Lord, another day has flown. Evening. From this the hymn "O let Thy grace perform its part" is taken.
2. O Lord, my God, in mercy turn. Penitence and Faith.
3. The Lord our God is full [clothed in] of might. Divine Sovereignty.
4. The Lord our God is Lord of all. Divine Sovereignty.
5. Through sorrow's night and danger's path. The Resurrection. Sometimes given as "When sorrow's path and danger's road."
6. What is this passing scene? Human Frailty. This hymn consists of selected stanzas from his "Ode on Disappointment."
The following notes are from an earlier publication by Hezekiah Butterworth, The Story of the Hymns; Or Hymns That Have A History (New York: American Tract Society, 1875):
WHEN, MARSHALLED ON THE NIGHTLY PLAIN!
Henry Kirke White was born at Nottingham, England, 1785. His father was a butcher in very humble circumstances. At the age of fourteen he became a weaver's apprentice, and two years later he was articled to an attorney.
His religious experience is interesting. He had an intimate friend in youth, named Almond. White was a skeptic, and used to ridicule religion and religious things; while Almond's heart was open to conviction; he seemed anxious to know the truth and to practise it.
One day Almond was called to the bedside of a dying believer, who passed away in great peace, consoled by a triumphant faith. He was fully convinced of the truth of religion by the impressive scene, and resolved to become a Christian. But he shrunk from making known his convictions through fear of the ridicule of White.
His mind for a time was greatly agitated and divided, but he at last made the resolution to give up the society of his friend, should it be necessary, and to avow himself a believer in Christ.
White felt the neglect of his friend keenly, and went to him in an injured way, and inquired the cause. Almond confessed the change that had taken place in his views, and announced his purpose of leading a different life. The answer, of course, implied that his friend was unworthy the confidence of one who aimed to live piously. White saw it in this light, and was cut to the quick.
"Good God, Almond!" exclaimed the conscience-smitten skeptic, "you surely regard me in a worse light than I deserve."
The interview melted the heart of White, and he, too, became an inquirer after truth, embraced religion, and the two youths renewed their friendship with warmer feelings and more elevated aims.
This experience White relates metaphorically in his familiar hymn which follows: ...
White now turned his purpose of life to the ministry, and prepared himself for Cambridge by severe study. At college his health gave way under the severity of his application, and he died in the autumn of 1806, at the age of twenty.
The following note concerning the fellow "Almond", mentioned above, comes from Robert Mellors, Men of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire (1924), found as Nottinghamshire History:
Rev. Robert White Almond, (1786-1853), M.A., F.R.S.L. [Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature], was Rector of St. Peter's, Nottingham, from 1814 until his death; but he was more than a parish rector, as we shall see. In the "Homes and Haunts of Henry Kirke White," the name of Mr. Almond frequently appears as fellow student and helpful friend. When in 1822 Plumptre Hospital, on London Road, had to be re-built, being in a ruinous state, an act of parliament had for some reason to be obtained for the purpose, and the three building commissioners appointed in the act were Alderman Barber (then, and thrice, mayor), Alderman Wilson (four times mayor) and the Rev. R. W. Almond, although the Hospital was not in his parish; here we see the business man. He was one of the original Committee of the Bromley House Library, and was its President for thirty-four years (1819-1853) during which he gained the esteem and goodwill of all who knew him, for to the poor he was a true friend and an unfailing participator with the afflicted in their distress, as for many years he rendered valuable and unremitting service to the General Hospital.
Also found in A Selection of Carols, Pieces, and Anthems, Suitable for Christmas. (London: W. Kent and Co.; Penzance: F. Rodda, ca. 1872), pp. 52-53, a cento with the one, two, three and six.
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