William Walsham How was born in December of 1823. His father, also named William, was a solicitor in Shrewsbury, England. How went to school in Shrewsbury, Wadham College, Oxford University. After deciding he was not called to be a lawyer like his father and struggling in certain classes, he decided to attend Durham and, in 1846, gained a license in theology. In December of that year, he was ordained and served at St. George’s in Kidderminster. During all this time, he continued with his favorite hobby of botany, sometimes even taking on more official roles in England’s botany societies.
Two years later, he moved back to his hometown and served in the Abbey Church, where he met and married his wife, Frances, and wrote numerous poems. He worked at several churches after leaving Shrewsbury in 1851, some for many decades, and others for only a handful of years. He even became a bishop, though he had tried to avoid the title. And yet, his enthusiasm lent itself to reviving the church in some areas and was even known as the children’s bishop because of his love and care for children and the poor.
During the course of his life, How wrote a great number of hymns, poems, and a handful of prose. Most of his hymns have long since been forgotten, but some can still be found in hymnals today. His sermons were loved by many, and he wrote a couple of commentaries and manuals for people trying to understand the practices of the church. In 1858, he penned We Give Thee but Thine Own. Below are some of How’s own words on hymns:
A hymn is essentially a form of devotion. It is a channel through which the soul’s best and highest emotions and aspirations should flow. A good hymn is something like a good prayer—simple, real, earnest, and reverent. Of course, it demands some chastened beauty of expression, and sensitive choice of language. The charm and the power of a good hymn depend upon subtle and delicate qualities, which are more easily felt than analyzed. Perhaps purity of tone, admitting no shade of affectation or exaggeration on the one side, or of stiffness or uncomeliness on the other, would describe the first necessary attribute of a really good hymn.“Hymns,” Werner’s Magazine, 1896
While a couple of different tunes have been used for this hymn, such as SCHUMANN and ST. ANDREW, the one used in our hymnals, and seemingly most often used, is called ENERGY or ST. ETHELWALD by William Monk. Monk is also the composer of the hymns Abide with Me and All Things Bright and Beautiful, among many others.
He and his wife had at least one son, and she aided How in some of his writings. Sadly, she died in 1887. While visiting Ireland, he became sick and died in August of 1897. He was buried at Wittington, where he had served for a great number of years, leaving behind him a legacy of song, care for the poor, and a life devoted to serving God and His people.
We give Thee but Thine own,
whate’er the gift may be;
all that we have is Thine alone,
a trust, O Lord, from Thee.
As quoted in the above, How viewed hymns as a type of devotion or prayer, and we will look at this hymn as such. Here, we pray something of a reflection of the Lord’s prayer. There, we ask that the Lord gives us for our daily bread, which we know He gives us without our asking because He loves us (Matt. 6:9-13, 7:11). But here, we acknowledge that what we give to God is already His. “For in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:24-28, Psa. 24:1-2). Nothing we have is of ourselves but rather gifts from God (1 Chron. 29:14, Eph. 2:8). And as the verse above says, they are “a trust” from God (1 Pet. 4:10). We know, as in the Lord’s prayer, that He will provide for us, and so we, in thankfulness and joy, return to God what is His, which is everything.
May we Thy bounties thus
as stewards true receive,
and gladly, as Thou blessest us,
to Thee our first fruits give!
Thus, recognizing that all we have is a loving gift from God, we take care of that which He has given us. We do this not as selfish children, though we are often that, but rather as thankful and devoted stewards of every gift (Matt. 25:14-30, 1 Pet. 4:10). We take care of our world, our communities, our families, and ourselves and our talents (Rom. 12:9-18, 1 Cor. 12:4-13:13, Jas. 2:14-19). We use these to God’s glory and care for them as the precious gifts that they are, and from our Heavenly Father no less (Matt. 5:16, Jam. 1:22-27)! So there should be little dispute in giving only the first fruits of what He has given us, for as we know, all belongs to the Lord anyway. And we give back to our God as gladly as He gave them to us (Matt. 10:7-8, Deut. 26:1-5).
Oh, hearts are bruised and dead,
And homes are bare and cold,
And lambs for whom the Shepherd bled
Are straying from the fold.
As mentioned before, this is like a prayer, and here we may think he strayed a little from the main flow of the hymn, as perhaps many of us do when we pray. Here, maybe we think of those who appear to have little give as though they have not been given much. And yet, maybe these are those who have not given much because they do not see the things they have been given for the loving gifts from God that they are. Thus, their hearts are dead, and homes are cold because they neglect the gifts God has given them, like bad stewards (Mal. 3:10, Jas. 2:14-26, Matt. 25:24-30). And though the Lord loves them and died for them, they stray because they have rejected these callings and gifts and the responsibilities that come with them (Matt. 25:41-45). And all too often, this is us.
To comfort and to bless,
to find a balm for woe,
to tend the lone and fatherless
is angels’ work below.
But here we look at another way of giving back to God by serving those around us (Matt. 22:37-40). Many think of first fruits and gifts from God as material possessions, which are gifts from God, but give only those. But these are not the only things God has given to us. He has also made us stewards of our time and talents. So here we tend to the needs of those around us as God has called us to do (Matt. 25:35-40, Luk. 10:36-37, Prov. 19:17).
The captive to release,
to God the lost to bring,
to teach the way of life and peace,
it is a Christlike thing.
This verse is a continuation of the last, only with a more spiritual point. Sometimes we do not give only time, talents, or treasures to those around us. Very often, whether doing the former or otherwise, we are shining the light of Christ. Though sharing the Gospel, the Lord works through us to free those trapped in darkness, find those who are wandering alone in this world, bringing to many the gifts God has first given to us: life, love, and salvation (Rom. 10:14-17, Phil. 2:12-16, 1 Jhn. 3:16-18, 4:18-21, Isa. 42:6-7, 55:10-11). This is all that Christ first did for us, so to do this for us is to truly be a Christian (1 Pet. 2:21).
And we believe Thy Word,
though dim our faith may be:
whate’er for Thine we do, O Lord,
we do it unto Thee.
Now we may struggle to always do all these things. Such is the process of sanctification and the need for grace (Phil. 3:12-14). But we hold fast to our Lord and His Word, following in His steps to be good stewards and caretakers of that and those He has given to us. But we remember that what we do for “the least of these,” who are so precious in God’s sight, we are doing for the Lord. For they and we are His first, and we love Him when we follow His commands (Matt. 25:40).
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig