Some churches celebrate the Feast of All Saints on November 1. Others set aside the first Sunday in November as All Saints Sunday. As predictable as singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve, those congregations will be singing “For All The Saints” sometime in early November. The day is set aside to honor departed saints, whether known or unknown. This hymn is often requested to be included in memorial services. Dietrich Bonhoffer is among the many who have requested this hymn.
The tune most often heard today with “For All the Saints” is the majestic SINE NOMINE, by gifted English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). In 1906, Vaughan Williams composed the tune specifically for the text. The name he gave the tune literally means “no name,” most fitting for All Saints Day.
The words were written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. In addition to his hymn writing, How was known for his work with the poor. There is a memorial to him in the Cathedral of All Saints in Wakefield, England, where he was the first bishop. He is buried in Whittington, Shropshire, England, where he served as rector for 28 years.
The words and music together give us a majestic hymn which celebrates the saints who have gone before us (“who from their labors rest”). As the hymn unfolds, it tells how they found strength and courage through Christ and tells how we, as believers in Christ, are brothers and sisters, one family, relatives of those who came before us and those who will come after us. We are told to have courage and be strong, for one day our rest will come and we will join the saints. Then, we will see Christ in triumphant, glorious procession.