Henry Burton was born in Swannington, North West Leicestershire, in 1840. His Wesleyan pedigree was impeccable. His grandfather, James, a farmer, had given the land for the first Wesleyan chapel in the village and built it in 1795. His grandmother, Ann, had formed the Wesleyan Juvenile Missionary Association when, in early 1814, her 6 children, including Henry’s father, another Henry, and a neighbour’s children were formed into a group of monthly contributors to the Wesleyan Missionary Society. His aunt Sarah married a former missionary and two of their children became Methodist Missionaries in India.
His conversion took place at the age of 15 at a service in one of the barns at his father’s farm which was being used while the chapel was being enlarged to accommodate a growing congregation.
Young Henry’s life changed dramatically when, on 12th December 1855, he set sail from Liverpool in the John J Boyd to start a new life in America with his parents, siblings and two servants together with other members of the Burton family. They arrived in New York on the 15th February 1856 after a long voyage caused by severe storms. The voyage is well documented as the bulk of the passengers were Mormons from Scandinavia who were likewise emigrating.
The family settled on a farm at the small village of Roscoe in Illinois. In autumn 1857, Henry started at Beloit College some 7 miles away just over the State border in Wisconsin from which he matriculated in 1858. He then continued with a degree graduating in 1862.
The family members had associated themselves with the Methodist Episcopal Church in Beloit and Henry became a Sunday School teacher, a class leader and an accredited Local Preacher. Immediately following graduation, the presiding elder asked him to go on supply to the Egerton Circuit and after 3 months he became a pastor at Monroe where he had a successful ministry before returning to England.
Just when he returned is not known but it was to Brunswick initially before he moved to work on his uncle’s farm at Breedon on the Hill some 6 miles from Swannington and was placed on the Castle Donington Preaching Plan. At this time he lived at Melbourne and assisted in successful work there at the Wesleyan chapel. He was recommended by the circuit as a candidate for the Wesleyan ministry for which he was accepted and entered in 1865. Among the places served were Chatteris, Newcastle, Bolton. Bradford Manchester, Seacombe, Waterloo, Lytham and Hoylake.
He wrote the commentary on St Luke for the Expositor’s Bible but his great love was writing poetry and hymns. In 1883, “Wayside Songs of the Outer and Inner Life,” was published in America. It contained the words to “There’s a light upon the mountains”. Two further poems were set to music and appeared in “Sacred Songs & Solos”. One was “Come for the feast is spread” which was often used as a sacramental hymn in the German Lutheran Church. The other was “Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on” at one time a popular hymn and the first line of which was chosen as the motto of the International Sunshine Society of America. It was a favourite hymn of the evangelist, Rodney “Gypsy” Smith, who frequently had it at his meetings.
He had the honour of writing an ode to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee which was set to music by Sir John Stainer, and sung by a thousand voice choir accompanied by an orchestra of seventy in the Royal Albert Hall.
The time spent in America left a lasting impression on him and he maintained links there. In 1900 he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Beloit College and, in 1926, was made an honorary member of the Hymn Writers Society of New York.
In his personal life, the strong ties with Wesleyan Methodism continued. In 1871, he married Ellen Pearse, the sister of the Rev. Mark Pearse, a well-known Wesleyan preacher. They had five children. Two of the daughters married Wesleyan Ministers and the youngest child, Howard, became a Wesleyan Minister himself.
Today, we remember him best for the advent hymn “There’s a light upon the mountains” with its wonderful poetry and imagery ably matched by Maurice Wostenholme’s music. There is the hint and no more that, in writing it, he might have been influenced by “Mine eyes have seen the glory”, another advent hymn written in November 1861 and published in America in February 1862 during the Civil War. He himself had been living in America during the first two years of it.
Following his retirement he moved to West Kirby to live overlooking the coastline which he left behind when, as a young boy, he set sail from Liverpool with the family to start a new life in America. He died there on 27th April 1930 aged 89.