This page was created by Donal Hegarty. 

Sounding Childhood

Hushed was the evening hymn

Hushed was the evening hymn” or “The Child Samuel” (1857) was written by Rev. James Drummond Burns of the Free Church of Scotland as part of a book entitled The Evening Hymn (1857) which contained original hymns and prayers for every evening of the month.  “Hushed was the evening” became the most famous, appearing in one-fifth of the hymn books I tabulated.  By the 1870s, Arthur Sullivan had written a tune for it, “Samuel,” first published with the text in Church Hymns with Tunes (1874) (McCutchan 447). Based on 1 Samuel 3: 1-18, the hymn references this narrative of the boy Samuel who one night is chosen by the Lord to hear His message, God purposely overlooking the sleeping priest Eli nearby.  Written in iambic tetrameter with iambic pentameter refrains, in ABABCC rhyme schemes, the poetry of the stanza demands poetic appreciation of the child singer.  As the first stanza shows, the “voice divine” becomes the central character of this drama, even before Eli (“The old man, meek and mild”) and Samuel (“The little Levite”) are introduced in Verse 2.  Further, when the Divine chooses the little boy over the wise priest, Burns emphasizes this privilege shown to the child: “And what from Eli’s sense was sealed/ The Lord to Hannah’s son revealed” (v. 2). Burns concludes the story here, turning to lessons for his contemporary audience, to give us the child’s “ear” (v. 3) and “heart” (v. 4) and, significantly, “mind” (v. 5).  Burns reminds his readers—adults and children alike—that a child’s insight is supreme: “That I may read with child-like eyes/ Truths that are hidden from the wise” (v. 5), idealizing “child-like” insight even over the apparent acumen of grown-ups.  In 1911, hymnologists Charles Nutter and Wilbur Tillett claimed that “No poet has made more effective and beautiful use for devotional purposes of the familiar Scripture story of the child Samuel than has the author of this hymn” (352).  

More discussion of this hymn can be found in Chapter 2, British Hymn Books for Children.

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