George Matheson was born in Glasgow on 27th March 1842. He was the eldest of eight children in the family and one of the brightest. After excelling at school he entered Glasgow University where he studied Classics, Logic and Philosophy.
He graduated with first class honours when he was only 19 years old but a deep tragedy was being worked out in his life even as he completed his studies – he was rapidly going blind. He had an incurable condition that would eventually result in total blindness and there was nothing that could be done to help him. Such a trial would cause most of us to suffer greatly but for George there was to be an even heavier blow. Whilst at University he had met and fallen in love with a girl who was a fellow student and they were planning to get married. He broke the news of his impending blindness to her, would she still marry him?
To his astonishment and deep sadness her blunt answer came to him with the force of a dagger to his heart, “I do not want to be the wife of a blind man” she said – and with that they parted.
Years later the memory of that rebuff came flooding back on the evening of his sister’s wedding and he recalls the pain of that night as he tells how it was on that occasion that he penned his most famous hymn.
“My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. 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. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high”.
It was through the deep trials of illness and desertion that George Matheson had come to place all his trust and hope in the love of God in Jesus Christ as his Saviour. From then on, despite his blindness, he had resolved to study Theology and Christian History and to enter the Christian ministry.
With God’s help, his resolve held firm and in 1879, three years before writing his famous hymn, the University of Edinburgh conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity. In 1890, he also became a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
He began his ministry in 1868 at Innellan, on the Argyll coast near Dunoon. He stayed there for 18 years. Not only did he preach, but he wrote a number of books on spiritual matters which proved popular with contemporary Christians. His ministry and writings came to the attention of Queen Victoria and when in Scotland she invited him to preach at Balmoral. She also had one of his sermons, on the Book of Job, published.
In 1886 he moved to Edinburgh, where he became minister of St. Bernard’s Parish Church for 13 years. It was here that his chief work as a preacher was done.
George never did marry but he continued to prove the truth of his hymn, that there was a love that would never let him go – the love of Christ for the sinner. The love that was demonstrated for all the world to see at the cross of Calvary. The love that is spoken of in the Bible in John Chapter 3 verse 16,
“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life”.
George Matheson died suddenly of a stroke on the 28th of August 1906 in Edinburgh and is buried in the Glasgow Necropolis. His hymn remains a particular favourite of those Christians whose lives are touched by tragedy and loss but who know that underneath them are the everlasting arms of a loving God and Saviour.