Who would true valour see: a great hymn for a funeral

[In this blog I have drawn upon Hymns That Live (Hodder & Stoughton 2008) by Frank Colqhoun]

In a recent survey of retired Baptist ministers I discovered that 38% had chosen hymns and readings for their funeral, 6% had made suggestions, and 56% had not made any preparations for their funeral. I am one of the 38% who have chosen hymns and readings – indeed, I have even devised an order of service and chosen the text for the address!

One of the hymns I have chosen is John Bunyan’s great ‘pilgrim song’, Who would true valour see. I chose it, partly because the hymn reflects my heritage – John Bunyan was a Baptist; but also because my experience of the Christian life reflects the fact that going the way of Jesus is demanding: to be a pilgrim calls for great resources of faith, courage and endurance.

Actually, this pilgrim song was never written to be used as a hymn in Christian worship, for in the 17th century ‘hymns’ in the ordinary sense of the word were not sung in churches and chapels – metrical psalms were used instead. Instead it was written as a poem to fit into the second edition (1686) of Pilgrim’s Progress, part two. On her journey, Christiana and her four boys, meet Valiant-for-Truth, “a man with his sword drawn, and his face bloody”, for he has just been engaged in a long and bitter fight with three assailants. It was at this point that Bunyan inserted the pilgrim song, which points his readers to “come hither” and take a good look at Valiant if they wish to see a picture of a courageous and victorious pilgrim. The language is, of course, dated – and yet it is still a powerful song.

Who would true valour see
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather;
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avoided intent
To be a pilgrim

Bunyan was speaking in the first instance of Valiant-for-Truth. He it was who “will constant be” – firm, resolute, immovable. The “wind” and the “weather” represent the changing and unpredictable circumstances of life – life is not always sunshine! As for “discouragement”, right at the beginning of his journey Valiant had been warned of the Slough of Despond, the Hill Difficulty, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and Doubting Castle – but he had resisted those who had sought to dissuade him from making the journey.

Whoso best him round
With dismal stories,
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright;
He’ll with a giant fight,
But he will have the right
To be a pilgrim

Bunyan mentions three sorts of opposition. There are those who “beset him round with dismal stories” – the discouragers of the first verse. Then there is the “lion”, a reference to part one of Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian was alarmed to see two lions guarding the Porter’s Lodge of Palace Beautiful. “Fear not the lions”, said the porter, “for they are chained, and are placed there for trial of faith where it is, and for discovery of those who have none. Keep in the midst of the path, and no hurt shall come unto thee”. The third opponent is “a giant”, the giant of Doubting Castle.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit:
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies, fly away;
He’ll fear not what men say;
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim

Some people are bothered by the word “hobgoblin”. ‘Hobgoblins don’t exist’ they say – and Bunyan would have agreed. Along with satyrs, fiends and dragons, they are all part of the evil forces encountered by Pilgrim in the Valley of the Shadow of Death – the language is symbolical and nothing more. Valiant’s faith overcomes these inventions of the mind and he bids such “fancies flee away”. “He’ll fear not what men say”. “He knows he at the end shall life inherit”. As Bunyan went on to write:

“When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river side, into which as he went he said, ‘Death, where is thy sting’. And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave, where is they victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.”

It’s a great hymn for a funeral!

2 comments

  1. Hi Paul

    Have not chosen hymns for my funeral yet, although years ago said I wanted ‘Will your anchor hold?’ for the occasion, not sure if I will revise, or not.

    I heard a few weeks ago that Rev Peter Peel who baptized me years ago had died, I phoned his widow Val, they live in Twickenham. She was pleased to hear from me, but wasn’t expecting me to make the journey for the funeral.

    I decided to go, and was wondering if he had changed his mind about his funeral hymn, he told us when still in his late thirties that it would be ‘How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord’.

    He had stuck with his choice. A very appropriate funeral hymn for a faithful preacher of God’s word.

    It was also a lovely funeral service, very honest, and told of a good retirement, Peter had been very much himself, but part of the church family at Whitton, one of his retirement activities was as a volunteer in the Cancer Research shop, but he also played an active part in church life, preaching the Sunday before he died.

    He had been a committed Liverpool supporter, he told us that when someone asked him if he would have felt happy to take Jesus to a match with him, he replied yes, providing he would agree to shout for Liverpool.

    They played ‘You’ll never walk alone as he was carried from the church.

    I agree the pilgrims hymn is a good one for a funeral. If I might be pedantic, I agree Bunyan was one of us, we stand in his spiritual tradition, but I’m sure I read once he disliked and would not own the label ‘Baptist’.

    Afraid not being a scholar I can’t quote chapter and verse, but am confident it is the case.

    Regards, Peter.

  2. This was my mother’s favourite hymn so of course we had it at her funeral. I can never hear it without thinking of her. The other hymns we had were Eternal Father strong to save, because she was in the WRNS during the war and she loved that hymn too, and Guide me O thou great redeemer which my brother chose. We had the hymn from Finlandia for the committal which I think can’t be bettered for a sad occasion.

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