History of Hymns: 'Fairest Lord Jesus'
By Hannah Cruse
“Fairest Lord Jesus”
Words: Münster Gesangbuch (1677), trans. Joseph August Seiss
The United Methodist Hymnal, 189
Fairest Lord Jesus,
ruler of all nature,
O thou of God and man the Son,
thee will I cherish,
thee will I honor,
thou, my soul's glory, joy, and crown.
For over three hundred years, Christians have sung and cherished “Fairest Lord Jesus.” How did this multigenerational hymn of devotion arrive in the present day? Well, I hope you aren’t in a rush because this hymn has a long and complex past. As Carl Daw, Jr., notes, “This hymn provides a classic example of the persistence of erroneous information” (Daw, 2016, p. 598). Rather than talk about text then tune, or tune then text, I will discuss each development in the history of this hymn as it occurred chronologically. That way, we can keep the timeline straight.
The hymn was copied from a Jesuit manuscript (1662) produced in Münster, Westphalia (Germany), where it consisted of six stanzas (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 722). The first printed iteration of “Fairest Lord Jesus” appeared in Münster Gesangbuch (1677), a Catholic hymnbook. The German text in five stanzas, beginning with “Schönster Herr Jesu, Herrscher aller Erden,” was paired with a tune of the same name. We have no record of authors for either text or tune. Heinrich Hoffman von Fallersleben (1798-1874) compiled Schlesische Volkslieder (1842), a collection of sacred songs (Glover, 1990, pp. 716-718). Von Fallersleben paired the German text with a tune he claimed to have heard sung by haymakers in the Glaz region, which he named ASCALON (though it is known by multiple names now, as you will see).
This tune was similar to a song written in 1766 by Dutch Kapellmeister Christian Ernst Graf (1723-1804), “Laat ons juichen Batavieren,” roughly meaning “Let’s celebrate.” Quick double neighbor figures in Graf’s piece echo the familiar figures (though rhythmically augmented) of several bars from “Fairest Lord Jesus” as written in The United Methodist Hymnal, though highly ornamented. See if you can hear the similarity in the following link: “Laat ons juichen Batavieren.”
The hymn was published again but with a few changes. American composer and hymn publisher Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900) included it in his collection Church Chorals and Choir Studies (1850). Willis renamed the tune CRUSADERS’ HYMN due to a false assumption that soldiers sang it on their way to Jerusalem (Reynolds, 1976, p. 64). Perhaps he assumed this because of the tune’s original name, ASCALON, referring to the location of the First Crusade’s last battle. In Church Chorals and Choir Studies, Willis published three stanzas of the German text alongside an English translation, “Fairest Lord Jesus.” Five years later, the influential Congregational Churches’ hymnal Plymouth Collection of Hymns and Tunes for the Use of Christian Congregations (1855) included three stanzas of “Fairest Lord Jesus” but did not list a translator. However, the editor, Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), a New York clergyman and brother to Harriet Beecher Stowe, may have had a hand in the text’s translation.
Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886) famously employed the CRUSADERS’ HYMN tune in his 1864 oratorio, The Legend of St. Elizabeth. During his “Crusader’s March,” French horns introduce the stately tune before flutes and strings tenderly reply (Listen to “Crusader’s March” where the melody enters at 2’45”). The movement evolves into a full-blown brass march, evoking sights of soldiers anxiously heading off to Jerusalem.
After the composition of Liszt’s oratorio, more and more variants of “Fairest Lord Jesus” popped up in publications. Joseph Augustus Seiss (1824-1904), a Lutheran pastor serving congregations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, translated the text “Beautiful Savior” in The Sunday School Book for the Use of Evangelical Lutheran Congregations (1873) (https://hymnary.org/person/Seiss_JA). On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the influential British collection, The English Hymnal (1906), paired the translation “Fairest Lord Jesus” with the old tune SCHÖNSTER HERR JESU, freshly harmonized by one of the eminent composers of the day, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958). F. Melius Christiansen (1871-1955), founder of the St. Olaf College Chorus, composed an anthem setting in 1919 called Beautiful Saviour that is still the ensemble’s signature piece. Lilian Stevenson (1870–1960) created a new translation of the German text paired with the tune SCHÖNSTER HERR JESU for Cantate Domino (1925), a hymnal by the World Student Christian Federation. “Fairest Lord Jesus” appeared in the Canadian Anglican The Book of Common Praise (1938) with the tune CRUSADERS’ HYMN, harmonized by Canadian composer James Hopkirk (1908-1972).
The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (1985) published “Fairest Lord Jesus” to the tune CRUSADERS’ HYMN, renaming the tune as ST. ELIZABETH. The new name harkens back to Liszt’s oratorio about St. Elizabeth of Thuringia, wife of German king Louis IV. Many hymnals published in the 1980’s transitioned to the tune name ST. ELIZABETH or alternate names such as FAIREST LORD JESUS, SCHÖNSTER HERR JESU, and BEAUTIFUL SAVIOUR. These are all titles for the exact same tune, traditionally known as CRUSADERS’ HYMN, and originally known as ASCALON.
Recently, many hymnal committees have abandoned the traditional tune name due to distaste for the period of Christian history known as the Crusades. The Crusades were once revered as missionary triumphs but are now viewed as blights on Christianity’s reputation. Due to the Crusades, Israelites suffered mass death and religious persecution for years on end. While many hymnals list alternate tune names, some modern hymnals, like Glory to God: the Presbyterian Hymnal (2013), retain the traditional name, CRUSADERS’ HYMN, perhaps for the sake of historical consistency and clarity.
This takes us to present day. Multiple translations and tunes currently circulate. About sixty percent of hymnals use “Fairest Lord Jesus” (18.104.22.168.5.8), while fifteen percent use “Beautiful Saviour” (22.214.171.124.5.8); another twenty-five percent use other translations. A small percentage of hymnals use the tune SCHÖNSTER HERR JESU (f or e minor) but predominantly use CRUSADERS’ HYMN (Eb or D major), otherwise known as ST. ELIZABETH.
Looking more closely at the text, stanza 1 establishes Jesus’ supremacy over the natural created order. Jesus is identified as both from God and the Son of Man, a reference commonly understood as indicating Christ’s two natures, divine and human. Scholars find the origins of this concept in Daniel 7 with various New Testament references such as Mark 10:45, “. . . the Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve and to give his life to redeem many people" (Good News Translation). Christ often refers to himself as the Son of Man. The remainder of the stanza makes the Son of God and Son of Man the object of our adoration, “my soul’s glory, joy, and crown.”
Stanza 2, extoling the beauty of the natural, created order such as the “meadows” and “woodland,” contrasts this natural beauty with that of Jesus who “is fairer . . . [and] purer,” concluding with a powerful metaphor—Jesus “makes the woeful heart to sing.” Stanza 3 lifts our eyes to the heavens—the sun, moon, and stars. Again, the comparison is that Jesus outshines the brightest lights of the heavens and is purer that all the angels of heaven. The final stanza echoes the first, concluding with the feeling of a doxology:
Glory and honor, praise, adoration,
now and forevermore be thine.
As indicated above, the hymn was published in German in von Fallersleben’s Schlesische Volkslieder, however, with five stanzas. The five follow a similar pattern: stanza 2: Jesus is fairer than the forests (Wálder) and the fields (Felder); stanza 3: Jesus shines brighter than the moon (Mondern), the sun (Sonne), and stars (Sternlein); stanza 4: Jesus more beautiful than all of heaven (Himmels) and earth (Erden). The final stanza in this collection concludes with a petition: Jesus, we ask you to be gracious to us until our last time (letzte Zeit), referring to death or the end of time. As in English, there are various German versions. The Austrian Catholic hymnal Gotteslob (1975) adapts the final stanza version found in von Fallersleben’s collection specifically for the liturgy:
Fairest Lord Jesus,
present with us
in thy word and sacrament,
Jesus, I pray thee:
Lord, be gracious unto us
Now, and to the final end. (literal translation by J. Richard Watson)
This hymn has stood the test of time for over three hundred years and will continue to be used. The tune enchants the heart, and the text transcends time. What could be more beautiful than meadows in springtime, sun beams, or twinkling stars? Jesus, our “ruler of all nature.” He “shines purer than all the angels heaven can boast”!
Henry Ward Beecher, ed., Plymouth Collection of Hymns and Tunes: for the Use of Christian Congregations (New York: A. S. Barnes & Company, 1855). https://archive.org/details/plymouthcollecti00beec/page/n9/mode/2up (See Hymn 658, page 270). Accessed March 21, 2020.
Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016).
Raymond F. Glover, ed., The Hymnal 1982 Companion (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990), Vol. 3A.
William J. Reynolds, Companion to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976).
J. Richard Watson, “Schönster Herr Jesu,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed March 21, 2020, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/schoenster-herr-jesu.
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
Hannah Cruse is an organist, oboist, composer, and writer with a Master of Sacred Music (2019) from Southern Methodist University. She is the founder of The Church Musician’s Assistant, an online resource providing flexible sheet music, educational courses, and coaching for church music-makers. She currently resides in the woods of Tennessee with her partner, Matt, and dog, Bub.