On November 18, 1827, sixteen-year-old Henry Alford wrote in his Bible: "I do this day, as in the presence of God and my own soul, renew my covenant with God, and solemnly determine henceforth to become His, and to do His work as far as in me lies." The rest of his life, this serious and holy young man showed that he meant what he said.
At college, he chummed with the noblest men of his day, among them Alfred Lord Tennyson. One of the deans said, "I really think he was morally the bravest man I ever knew. His perfect purity of mind and singleness of purpose, seemed to give him a confidence and unobtrusive self-respect which never failed him." Rejecting participation in the sins that were so common among young men at Cambridge, he became an outstanding scholar. It did not go to his head. For example, he wrote in his journal, "I went up to town and received the Holy Orders of a Priest; may I be a temple of chastity and holiness, fit and clean to receive so great a guest; and, on so great a commission as I have now received, O my beloved Redeemer, my dear Brother and Master, hear my prayer."
To the person in the pew, Henry Alford is best known as the author of the Thanksgiving hymn "Come Ye Thankful People Come." Among scholars, he is better known for his commentary on the Greek New Testament, on which he labored for eighteen years. He did much of this work while carrying on the duties of a vicar to the small parish of Wymeswold. It had been neglected and he rebuilt it, visiting every soul in his keeping. One of his major undertakings was a series of Sunday afternoon sermons in which he taught through books of the Bible, explaining their meaning. He had a knack for explaining things in a way the simple people could understand.
For example, explaining that Paul expected Christ to return in his own lifetime, he wrote, "Nor need it surprise any Christian that the apostles should in this matter of detail have found their personal expectation liable to disappointment respecting a day of which it is so solemnly said that no man knoweth its appointed time, not the angels in heaven, not the Son, but the Father only (Mark xiii. 32)."
After many years of hard work, chiefly at Wymeswold, he accepted a position at Canterbury Cathedral that allowed him more time to write. At Canterbury, he began a series of Sunday afternoon services as he had done at Wymeswold. Again these attracted large crowds. His preaching was evangelical. Formal church leaders considered him a bit radical but his good humor and friendliness won their affection. He was notable for being able to see the best points in all Christian positions, however much he might disagree with them.
Henry died rather unexpectedly in 1871. In addition to Bible work and hymns, he edited the poems of John Donne and translated Homer's Odyssey.
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- Alford, Henry. Alford's Greek Testament; an exegetical and critical commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Guardian Press, 1976.
- Cross, F. L. and Livingstone, E. A. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, 1997.
- Day, Nigel. "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come." http://www.stpetersnottingham.org/hymns/thankful.htm
- Hare, Augustus J. C. (Augustus John Cuthbert). Biographical Sketches; being memorials of Arthur Penrhyn Stanley...Henry Alford...Mrs. Duncan Stewart, etc. London: G. Allen; New York, Dodd, Mead, and co., 1895.
Last updated June, 2007