Brightest and best of the sons of the morning

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.

This hymn was first published by Reginald Heber (1783-1826) in the Evangelical periodical The Christian Observer 1811, set to the Scottish tune 'Wandering Willie'. It was later included in his posthumous collection Hymns written and adapted to the Weekly Church Services of the Year 1827 (in which he contributed 57 hymns). Heber was a descendant of an aristocratic Yorkshire family. Educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, he later won a Fellowship of All Souls. He took Holy Orders in 1807 and in 1822 was offered the bishopric of Calcutta. The See of Calcutta included the whole of British India, and the strain caused his health to suffer. His posthumous work of 1827 (with Dean Milman) was the first attempt to provide a set of hymns for the Christian year. The hymn was excluded from early editions of Hymns Ancient & Modern on account of it being addressed to a star. Objections were also raised to the fact that the metre of the hymn was suggestive of a dance. It is, in reality, a straightforward Epiphany hymn. The repetition of the first verse at the end is important, as it restores the central image of the infant Redeemer. The hymn is based on Matthew 2:2, 9-11, together with the Advent Collect ('Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness ...'), and the Third Collect at Evening Prayer ('Lighten our darkness...'). The phrase 'sons of the morning' has its origins in Isaiah 14:12. Other biblical references include ? Job 28 (in verse 3) and Psalm 34 vv.18 and 6 in verse 4 lines 3 and 4. Edom (verse 3, line 2) was the land inhabited by the descendants of Esau, a mountainous area north of the Gulf of Aqaba. There were copper mines there, but Heber's 'odours' (suggesting spices or frankincense) may be poetic licence.

Tune - Epiphany

The tune Epiphany by J F Thrupp (1827-1867), first appeared in Turle's Psalms and Hymns (1863), but the Bristol Tune Book of the same year gives the date of composition as 1848. Thrupp was a Priest and a biblical scholar, being educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. For some years he was associated with the work of the SPCK. The original falling seventh in the last line of the melody is now omitted from all modern hymnals.

Nigel Day
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th December 2005