Hymn History: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning May 4, 2022

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven – Matthew 5:16

We are thrilled to share a series of brief accounts of how some of the great hymns of our faith were written. Each synopsis has been compiled through the research of Jerry Vargo and is shared by permission. It is our hope that these stories will be a help and encouragement to your Christian walk. This week we read the full and powerful story behind the stirring hymn, “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning”


All along America’s east and west seaboards, the gulf shore, and along the Great Lakes region, light houses stood on the shore of major harbors. Along with lighthouses, there were also lower lights to guide ships into the harbor.

When there were large rocks near the shore, the lower lights helped the pilots to steer clear of them at night. Lower lights were placed along the shore at even intervals. If a ship was coming into the harbor at night, the pilot would see the evenly spaced lower lights.  If there was a gap in the reflection of the lights that meant that there was a large rock between the ship and the entrance to the harbor.  The pilots would avoid sailing into these “dark areas,” knowing that the rocks blocked the lights from showing across the waves.

Songwriter Philip Bliss was traveling with the famous evangelist D.L.Moody. While preaching, Mr. Moody told this true story.

One dark stormy night on Lake Erie, the winds were howling and the rain was relentless. The waves rolled like mountains and not a star in the sky could be seen. A ship was rolling with the huge waves and was trying to make its way into Cleveland harbor.  At last, the Captain saw the lighthouse for Cleveland harbor, but he could not see the lower lights.

The Captain said to the Pilot, “Is that Cleveland Harbor?”

The Pilot responded, “Yes sir, it is Cleveland Harbor.”

“Where are the lower lights?” the Captain asked.

“They must have gone out, sir.” said the Pilot.

“Can you make it into the harbor without the lower lights?” asked the Captain.

“We must, sir, or we will perish in this storm!” was the Pilot’s reply.

With a strong hand and with a brave heart, the Pilot turned the ship’s wheel toward Cleveland Harbor, but the ship missed the channel and crashed on the rocks. The boat sank and over 200 people lost their lives.

Mr. Moody then made an application from this story: “Brethren, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse of salvation, but it is our job to keep the lower lights burning to guide men safely to Him.”

After hearing Mr. Moody tell this story, Philip Bliss wrote the words and music to the beautiful hymn – Let the Lower Lights Be Burning.

1. Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore;
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

(Refrain) Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

2. Dark the night of sin has settled,
Loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore. (Refrain)

3. Trim your feeble lamp, my brother!
Some poor seaman, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost. (Refrain)

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  1. dorena gay schuster on May 7, 2022 at 10:19 AM

    Truely, I’ve not read a better piece.
    As a lifelong mariner, I sit here besot.
    These stories on our beloved hymns, warm the soul, very well done, indeed.

    • scottpauley on May 9, 2022 at 5:40 PM

      Thank you for reading.

    • Prashant L. Nemani on November 12, 2022 at 3:22 AM

      Only a seaman or sailor by profession can understand the importance of a Lighthouse.
      In pitch dark it gives a hope with its Lower Lights burning and throwing it’s beam in a straight line thereby guiding the ship into the harbour safely.

      The story elaborated by evangelist D. W. Moody and inspiring Philip Paul Bliss is one of the best ever Hymns written.

      • Andy Lapid on December 2, 2022 at 5:59 AM

        Amen! Glory to God…

  2. June on June 3, 2023 at 7:25 PM

    This is one of my favourite hymns
    Thank you for sharing the story behind these beautiful words.
    I’d like to share this on Facebook, would that be ok?
    June L

    • Micah Hendry on June 8, 2023 at 12:48 AM

      We are very glad to hear it! Of course, feel free to pass it along. May God bless you.

  3. Ruth on September 7, 2023 at 4:05 PM

    Beautiful! May God bless you for sharing this story and reminding us of our duty to mankind – especially the saints – to pray for them and encourage them as much as God gives us the capacity to do.

  4. Barbara Matthews on September 10, 2023 at 11:28 AM

    I have never been to sea but find the words to this beautiful old hymn so searching & challenging!
    I’ve tried – in my 78 years to be “a lower light” – & trust my Captain will find me worthy of the words “Well Done good & faithful servant!!”
    TY for your great contribution of Talent & Faith to our walk with God!

    • Micah Hendry on September 12, 2023 at 12:27 AM

      God bless you!

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