On the day his sister was married, in the picturesque village of Innellan on the shore of Scotland, George Matheson endured one of the most traumatic and unspeakable experiences of his life. So unspeakable, he would never disclose it; he would only say this: “Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering” (Dough 111).
The hymn was “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” which famous American hymnwriter Fanny Crosby would affectionately call her favorite (112).
Crosby and Matheson had something unique in common: they were both completely blind. Born with sight, Matheson’s eyes began failing over the course of his childhood, and he was fully blind by the age of eighteen. But that did not stop young George from pursuing what he loved. Coming from a wealthy merchant family in Glasgow, Matheson studied at the University of Glasgow and graduated with honors. He went on to become an influential pastor, leading a congregation of 2,000 members at St. Bernard’s Church in Edinburgh.
Believers from all over Scotland made the trek to St. Bernard’s to hear the blind preacher deliver his passionate messages from the pulpit, and congregants from all over the world sing his famous hymn to this day. Still, none but God and George himself will ever know what happened on that day in Innellan, as the man sat alone and furiously penned the words of this beloved hymn, the verses coming to him as if dictated by someone else. “It was the quickest work I ever did in my life,” he would later say. “I am quite sure the whole work was completed in five minutes” (111).
The Cross, the Joy, the Light, the Love—these were the truths that held tight to a Scottish pastor as he suffered through a pain he could not bear to name. They are the truths that hold us too.
O Love That Will Not Let Me Go
George Matheson; Albert L. Peace
O love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.
O light that foll’west all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
O cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red
life that shall endless be.
Dough, Whitney J. The Hymnwriters: Our Unknown Friends: A Biographical Guide to British and American Sacred Song. Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 1995.