b Edinburgh 1808, d Edinburgh 1889. Edinburgh High Sch and Univ; licensed to preach (Ch of Scotland) and became asst. to the Minister at Leith, where his first hymns were written as a response to the children who needed more than archaic Psalmody. With other young men he engaged in mission work in the city’s homes, courtyards and alleyways. Five of his own 9 children died while young. From 1837 he was Minister of the North Parish beside the Tweed in Kelso; then at the 1843 ‘disruption’ he became a founder member of the Free Ch of Scotland but (unlike many) was able to continue his existing ministry at Kelso. He edited the Quarterly Journal of Prophecy 1848–73; Hon DD (Aberdeen) 1853; he visited Palestine 1855–6 and drew much imagery from his experiences there. From 1866, he was Minister of the Chalmers Memorial Free Ch, Edinburgh; from 1883, Moderator of the Free Church’s General Assembly. ‘Always a Presbyterian’, and a keen student of the Classics and early church fathers, he wrote about one book every year; his Words to Winners of Souls has proved of special value to Jerry E White, President of The Navigators a century later. Bonar was a frequent attender and speaker at London’s Mildmay Conferences; see under W Pennefather. As well as being committed to prayer, preaching and visiting, he wrote some 600 warmly evangelical hymns and other Psalm paraphrases, earning him the title ‘prince of Scottish hymn-writers’. Some were designed specifically for the visiting American singer (with Moody), Ira D Sankey. About 100 reached publication; many were written very rapidly but enjoyed great popularity in their day, and his lifetime witnessed a great change in what was sung in Scottish churches. The Keswick Hymn Book (1938) featured 17 of these and Hymns of Faith (1964), 13. But while the 1898 edn of the Scottish Church Hymnary included 18 texts (more than from any other author), CH3 (1975) found room for 8 and the 2005 book reduces these to 5; posterity has been less than kind to his wider reputation. Among those not quite forgotten is ‘All that I was – my sins, my guilt,/ my death was all my own;/ all that I am I owe to thee,/ my gracious God alone.’
A clause in Bonar’s will stipulated that no memoir should be published, but in the year after his death his son H N Bonar published Until the Day Break, and other Hymns and poems left behind, and in 1904 and further hymn selection with notes. Julian laments the hymnwriter’s ‘absolute indifference to dates and details’, while Routley is lukewarm about much of his work, and on receiving the news of his death, Ellerton acknowledged his limited vision, unpoetic lines and occasional triteness—‘But he is a believer. He speaks of that which he knows; of him whom he loves, and whom, God be praised, he now sees at last’—JE, 1889. Like this English hymnologist, several other historians have at least admitted Scotland’s debt to one who probably did more than anyone to bring hymns into the mainstream of the church’s and the nation’s song. Nos.151, 271, 581, 648, 701, 710, 793, 801, 838, 855, 874.