Rose: Hymns – Savior, When in Dust to Thee

Unlike many of the hymns found in our hymnal, “Savior, When in Dust to Thee” was written not by a pastor nor a church father nor even someone who worked in the church. Instead, our author Robert Grant was a politician and lawyer. But his words are deep and full of repentance and adoration, making this a fitting text as we head into the Lenten season.

Grant was born in India in 1779. His father, Charles Grant, was of Scottish descent and a member of parliament as well as a chairman for the East India Company. When he and his brother returned to England many years later, they attended Magdalene College together. Both brothers became lawyers in 1807, a practice he continued in for many years. He married a woman named Margaret, and together they had four children, three of whom followed in their father’s political footsteps and one who died as a child.

Grant was an advocate for the civil treatment of the Jews, though he would not live to see the fruit of his work. He was called to many political positions over the next several years, but in 1834, he became the governor of Bombay. He had a lasting legacy in India, even having a medical college named after him. During his time there, he wrote a small collection of hymns and worked on some Psalmodies. A year after his death, his brother published 12 of his lyrical writings in Sacred Poems in 1839. These hymns are little gems for our hymnals today, and they show the Love for Christ and His salvation now able to be sung by all.

While many tunes have been paired with this hymn, the one we find in the LSB was composed by Joseph Parry called ABERYSTWYTH. Parry was born to Welsh parents Daniel and Elizabeth in 1841, the second youngest of eight children. His family was part of the Welsh Annibynwyr, or Congregationalists. Though his whole family was gifted musically, employing their talents in many places, young Joseph quit school at nine years old to work in the mines with his father. Even so, he continued to employ his musical talents during his off-time from work, though he could not read music. His father left for America in 1853, and Joseph and the rest of the family followed in the summer of the following year, settling in Pennsylvania among a Welsh community.

Life was better here, and now Joseph was able to continue his education, most notably in music. Though he continued to work for the steel mills until 1865, he was also able to submit musical compositions and win prizes for his work. He even learned how to play an organ, which was bought specifically for him by the chapel there. Joseph also met a woman named Jane, who was of Welsh ancestry but spoke mostly English. They were married in 1861 and he joined her Presbyterian Church. Together, they had five children, all of whom but the last were born in America. Though all of his children loved music, his oldest son, Joseph Hayden, became a composer and educator.

Joseph continued submitting his compositions to various groups, and in the mid-1860s, his work gained significant attention in the Eisteddfod. He won, as the judges thought he was a professional, and he was able to travel back to Aberystwyth, Wales, to try for a contest there. While there was some confusion at the contest, he was offered a study until a professional musician, and later given a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music. Though he initially had to decline for this family’s sake, because of his reputation, a fund was brought together to support him and his family so that he could study music. He continued giving concerts during his three-year program, even performing for Queen Victoria. He then attended Cambridge and gained a doctorate. In 1874, he returned to Aberystwyth to be their first Professor of Music. It was during this time that he wrote the tune by the same name, though it would not be published until 1879.

He then rotated between Wales, England, and America at various college and organist positions, even founding a musical college. Perry continued composing, teaching, and touring until the time of his death. Unfortunately, he became quite sick at the end, and his death came suddenly. But the people around him demonstrated their great love for him at his funeral, and he was buried at St. Augustine’s in Penarth, Wales.

I love the stories of both of these men. The first tells us of how such a wonderfully impactful text came from something of an unusual source. And in the second, we received a composition from a person who began with barely any education but had a heart to share his gifts. Together they made a hymn of humility and thankfulness, a hymn that brings us to our knees as our voices fill the vault that God might turn and heal us.

Savior, when in dust to Thee
Low we bow the adoring knee;
When, repentant, to the skies
Scarce we lift our weeping eyes;
O, by all Thy pains and woe
Suffered once for us below,
Bending from Thy throne on high,
Hear our penitential cry!

While I love the words to every verse of this hymn, I find the first verse particularly moving. Here we cry to our Savior. We are in dust. But what dust? In the earth, on the ground, with a cross marked upon our foreheads, and to which we shall return (Gen. 3:19, Psa. 103:13-14). In such a simple phrase, I see the salvation story, our humble position, and such adoration for our Savior. But like the sinner in the temple, we can barely lift our eyes (Luk. 18:9-14). “Have mercy on me, o Lord, a sinner.” Forgive us! But Christ suffered once to save sinners. So as He came down to us in the flesh, we ask now that He would come near to us and hear our repentance as we cry out to Him in dust and ashes (Psa. 130:1-2).

By Thy helpless infant years,
By Thy life of want and tears,
By Thy days of deep distress
In the savage wilderness,
By the dread, mysterious hour
Of the insulting tempter’s pow’r,
Turn, O turn a fav’ring eye;
Hear our penitential cry!

As we were reminded at the end of the preceding verse that Christ came down to earth, here we are brought through the life of Christ. He took on human flesh, the form of a servant, and lived a life unremarkable by worldly standards (Isa. 53:1-5, Mat. 4:1). For what reason should we look to Him? But we look on. He suffered for us, was tempted like us, and lived as perfect for us (Phil. 2:5-11, Heb. 4:14-16). And as we suffer these things, we ask that He might look upon us and hear our cry of repentance and need for His grace (Num. 6:24-26, Isa. 1:18, Psa. 27:7-9).

By Thine hour of dire despair,
By Thine agony of prayer,
By the cross, the nail, the thorn,
Piercing spear, and torturing scorn,
By the gloom that veiled the skies
O’er the dreadful sacrifice,
Listen to our humble sigh;
Hear our penitential cry!

Now we continue this story of love and suffering for us. We look back on when Christ suffered once for us and forward to when we remember that suffering during Holy Week. Look now on that hour of despair, the agony, the cry to God, the pain of piercing and of dying. But God looks not now on our sin but on those suffering hours when Christ died for us (1 Pet. 2:24). He sees His perfect Son who took upon Himself our sin and became a redeeming sacrificial Lamb for us. We ask that He listen to us, humbled as we are and in dust and ashes (2 Cor. 7:10).

By Thy deep expiring groan,
By the sad sepulchral stone,
By the vault whose dark abode
Held in vain the rising God,
O, from earth to heav’n restored,
Mighty, re-ascended Lord,
Bending from Thy throne on high,
Hear our penitential cry!

Our Lord is laid in the earth, our perfect Lamb slain for us. With his last “expiring groan,” so too did our sin expire, our debt paid for (Jhn. 19:30, Rom. 8:1-8). It is finished. But we know, though we enter the season of Lent, that this story does not end here! That tomb of death could not hold our Christ! For He rose again! And now He has returned to heaven, our life restored to God. He reigns now in majesty and unity with the Father. And from there, we ask that He might bend His ear and turn His face upon us and be merciful to us, hearing our cry of repentance as we remember what Christ has done for us (Psa. 119:114).

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig


Works Referenced

“419. Savior, When in Dust to Thee.”  The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.

Ambrose, G. P., (1959). PARRY, JOSEPH (1841 – 1903), musician. Dictionary of Welsh Biography.

Bott, Frank. “Joseph Parry.” Pencerdd America. 2013.

“Joseph Parry.”

“Robert Grant.” Hymnary.org.

“Robert Grant (MP).”

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