Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Mother’s Day–Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

It is no wonder that one of my mother’s favorite songs was the hymn, “Let the lower lights be burning,” composed by Philip Paul Bliss, a nineteenth-century musician and evangelist.

Living and growing in Wesleyville, one of Newfoundland’s poor but hearty outports on the island’s northeastern Bonavista Bay, and with a father who captained a fishing schooner, my mother was well educated (formally, she finished the equivalent of eighth grade) about the importance of the “lower lights.”

The history of Bliss’s 1871 hymn suggests he wrote it after hearing a sermon by the evangelist Dwight L. Moody that included a story of a ship running aground while entering Cleveland harbor (on Lake Erie) because the lighthouse had failed.

Moody made the distinction of the upper lights, God’s starry heaven, the navigation aid to mariners worldwide, and the “lower lights” provided by coastal lighthouses that warn ships of danger as they approach shallow rockbound coasts. These lower lights–the strong beams from the lighthouse–were critical beacons of warning and guides to safety for ships approaching their berths. The lower lights provide sailors their way to safe harbor.

Moody’s story noted that God takes care of the upper lights, but it is the Christian’s duty to “let the lower lights be burning” as a means of guidance and rescue—and for Moody and his evangelist friend, Bliss, for the saving of souls.

Here are the inspired verses Bliss wrote after hearing Moody:

“Brightly beams our Father’s mercy

From his lighthouse evermore,

But to us he gives the keeping

Of the lights along the shore.


“Let the lower lights be burning,

Send a gleam across the wave.

Some poor fainting, struggling seaman

You may rescue, you may save.


“Dark the night of sin has settled,

Loud the angry billows roar.

Eager eyes are watching, longing,

For the lights along the shore.


“Trim your feeble lamp, my brother,

Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,

Trying now to make the harbor

In the darkness may be lost.”


I never really appreciated how much that hymn awakened the lived experience of my mother, though I often noted she sang it lustily and mostly from memory during the frequent church “singspirations” at our Baptist church in Brooklyn. As a young girl, my mother had worked at a waterfront department store—the only job for which she drew pay during her 93 years–and became familiar with the ways and wares of a life dependent on the sea.

Bliss’s words are meant to inspire us to serve others, especially those in peril. I believe my mother, who later in life, when her four children were grown and gone on their own voyages, became a Red Cross volunteer, and who, as she aged became a devoted reader of the Book of Psalms, was inspired to be a keeper of the “lower lights.”

I recall as a young man being inspired along similar lines after reading J. D. Salinger’s classic novel, Catcher in the Rye. I was particularly impressed with Holden Caulfield’s dream story of him serving as a guard for children playing in a field of rye close to a dangerous precipice. It was the protagonist’s job to watch over the children and catch any who wandered too close to the perilous edge. He was the “catcher” in the rye. I recall telling a church study group focusing on “ministry” that I’d determined I too wanted to become a “catcher in the rye.”

I’ve learned that sentiment has been inspired as much by my mother as by Salinger.

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