One of the most difficult feats for any historian to accomplish, is to see the best in everyone--even in those historical figures with whom he disagrees. By common consensus, Henry Hart Milman, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, did that better than most.
Near the beginning of his best-known work, the eight-volume History of Latin Christianity, Henry wrote, "I presume not, neither is it the office of the historian, to limit the blessings of our religion either in this world or the world to come; 'there is One who will know his own.' As an historian I can disfranchise none who claim, even on the slightest grounds, the privileges and hopes of Christianity: repudiate [disown] none who do not place themselves without the pale of believers and worshippers of Christ, or of God through Christ."
Henry was born in London in 1791. His father was a baronet and Henry received a top-notch education at Greenwich, Eton and Oxford. His earliest efforts in literature were poetry, which included his prize-winning poem "The Apollo Belvidere" with its quotable line: "And the cold marble leapt to life a God." But Henry also wrote hymns.
His best-known hymn was "When Our Heads Are Bowed with Woe:"
When our heads are bowed with woe,
When our bitter tears o'erflow,
When we mourn the lost, the dear,
Jesus, Son of Mary, hear!
Thou our throbbing flesh hast worn,
Thou our mortal griefs hast borne,
Thou hast shed the human tear,
Jesus, Son of Mary, hear!
Another of his hymns to Christ, "Ride on, Ride on, in Majesty" is sung on Palm Sunday.
In 1817, Henry was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. Two years earlier, he had published "Fazio" a poetic drama. Without his knowledge, it was staged under the name "The Italian Wife," and was fairly successful, as were several other dramas and dramatic poems that he wrote. None of them carry much weight now. Neither does his history of the Jews, which was controversial at the time--it told their story without emphasis on the Bible's miracles. He broke new ground by translating Sanscrit poetry into English, but his understanding of Sanscrit wasn't good enough to make his translations last. He also edited Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and wrote a biography of that great historian. (His own style was strongly influenced by Gibbon.)
Through influential backers, Henry was awarded high positions in the Church of England. When he died on this day, September 24, 1868, he was dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Naturally, he wrote a history of the building. A scholar rather than an evangelist, he was distrusted by many of his contemporaries, who doubted whether he stood solidly for the truth of the Bible. But the Dictionary of National Biography declares that he "permanently raised the standard of ecclesiastical history."
- "Henry Hart Milman." http://www.cyberhymnal.org
- Milman, Henry Hart. History of Latin Christianity; including that of the popes to the Pontificate of Nicholas V. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1881.
- "Milman, Henry Hart." The Dictionary of National Biography, founded in 1882 by George Smith; edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
- "Milman, Henry Hart." Encyclopedia Americana. Chicago: Americana Corp., 1956.
- "Milman, Henry Hart." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone. Oxford, 1997.
- Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge, 1961.
Last updated July, 2007