Horatius Bonar was descended from a long line of Church of
Scotland Ministers. After Edinburgh University, he became a
“missionary assistant” in Leith. He quickly realised that the
Sunday School children could not relate to the psalms – at
that time the only singing allowed in church – and started
writing poems they could understand and enjoy, setting
them to popular tunes of the day. From this beginning he
would go on to write over 600 hymns.
Bonar was called to be the first minister of the newly built North Church in Inch Road, Kelso, being inducted and ordained on the day it was opened, 26th November 1837. Six years later came ‘The Disruption’ which was to tear the Church of Scotland apart. At the General Assembly in Edinburgh on 18th May 1843, Rev. David Welsh read a protest against interference in a congregation’s right to choose a minister. He walked out, followed by an impromptu procession of elders and ministers. Out of the 1200 clergy, some 450 seceded, including Horatius Bonar with his entire congregation. For many ministers, it meant losing their house and stipend and for their congregation its place of worship. In Kelso, it merely meant changing the name to Kelso North Free Church and it was to be 19 years before the Church of Scotland claimed back the building, precipitating the move to Roxburgh Street.
As well as hymns, Bonar was to make a name for himself as the author of the KELSO TRACTS which set out in a clear, simple way, the Gospel message. It is said that his tract of 1839 Believe and Live was loved by Queen Victoria, who regularly gave it to people. Others such as God’s Way of Holiness and God’s Way of Peace sold in their thousands and were translated into French, German and Gaelic. Bonar wrote a number of books and was for many years editor of ‘The Border Watch’ and ‘The Quarterly Journal of Prophecy’. He firmly believed that Christ’s return was imminent. Bonar conducted meetings in farm kitchens, village schools and the open air, speaking in a way that even the simplest folk could understand. In 1855, in need of a break, he journeyed to the Holy Land. Many of his hymns from this trip were written on the back of a camel! Some of the best loved are Thy way, not mine,O Lord; the communion hymn Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face and the uplifting Glory be to God the Father.
In 1866 Bonar left Kelso to become minister of the new Chalmers Memorial Free Church at Grange in Edinburgh. He was elected Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church in 1883 and celebrated the jubilee of his ministry in 1888, dying in 1889 after a long illness.
In 1843, Horatius Bonar married Jane Lundie, third daughter of the Rev. Robert Lundie, Minister of Kelso Parish Church and sister of Mary Lundie. Jane like her husband and sister also wrote hymns, but none became well known.
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