On All Saints Sunday, November 3, we will sing what I imagine is one of the most popular All Saints hymns in the world, written by William Walsham How and sung to the tune Sine Nomine. Sine Nomine was composed by Ralph Vaughn Williams, and means “without name.” The purpose of this name was to allow Williams’ authorship to remain anonymous so as not to offend one of his teachers who had also written a tune for this hymn.
William Walsham How was born in England on December 13, 1823, graduated from Oxford University, and from there went on to study at, and graduate from, Divinity School at Durham, and later obtained his Doctorate of Divinity Degree at Oxford. He was ordained priest in 1846, and after serving several parishes in England, he was consecrated in 1879 Suffragan Bishop for the Diocese of London where he was responsible for the province of Bedford, located in London’s impoverished East End, where he lived among the poor. There he labored in the slums and became known as “the poor man’s bishop” and “the children’s bishop.” In 1888, he became the first Diocesan Bishop of Wakefield in the north of England, an impoverished and smog ridden industrial diocese. There he continued his work with the poor and with children.
With the lines in the third verse, “O may thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,” For All the Saints evokes the theology we proclaim in the Mass that “we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven.” Again in the eighth verse, How speaks to our belief that we will transition from this earthly life to eternal life in heaven with the lines, “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless hosts.”
During his lifetime, Bishop How wrote over fifty hymns, most of them while he was rector at Whittington, Shropshire, near the Welsh border.