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Word Smith: Wert

Not to be confused with the typing keyboard from yesteryear – QWERTY – we were singing the song “Holy, Holy, Holy” at church one Sunday. One of the words which always struck me was the word wert. It sounded to be the past tense of the verb TO BE, but I was not sure it’s meaning or origin. Not far from the truth, wert is the archaic version of the verb to be, referring to the “second-person singular simple past subjunctive of  to be. As an example, “If thou wert mine, I would be in heaven!”

The verb shows up in the old German style lyrics of the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty – lyrics

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
which wert and art and evermore shalt be.

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The Story Behind the Song: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty

Born in 1783, Reginald Heber was from a wealthy family in western England. Heber attended Oxford and won several awards for poetry, before he became rector for his father’s church. The younger Heber married Amelia Shipley and started his missionary calling. In 1823 he was appointed the second Bishop of Calcutta, India.

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Reginald Heber (1783 – 1825)

Heber served his people in India for three years before suddenly dying of stroke at the age of 42. Among her dead husband’s papers, Amelia found the words of a collection of powerful and beautiful hymns and poems that he had written. Amelia Heber read the poem “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” at her husband’s funeral.

More than a quarter century later, in 1861, a publisher rediscovered the words to Heber’s hymn. The publisher asked John Bacchus Dykes to write a tune that matched the simplicity and depth of the hymn. It made sense for the publisher to turn to Dykes who had a natural aptitude for music. Dykes had been a church organist since he was ten-years-old and was co-founder and president of the Cambridge University Musical Society.

Dykes read the words as he sat down at his organ and began composing. The story goes that within thirty minutes John Dykes wrote the tune “Nicea,” which carried the praise of the Trinity (father/son/holy ghost).