History of Hymns: 'King of My Life' ('Lead Me to Calvary')
By C. Michael Hawn
“King of My Life” (“Lead Me to Calvary”)
by Jennie Evelyn Hussey
Songs of Zion, 45
King of my life I crown Thee now—
Thine shall my glory be;
Lest I forget Thy thorn-crowned brow,
Lead me to Calvary.
Lest I forget Gethsemane,
Lest I forget Thine agony,
Lest I forget Thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.*
*© 1944 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Christian hymnody is replete with verses on the experience of crucifixion. Throughout the centuries, Christians have expressed a longing to be present at the foot of the cross in poetic and musical terms. These expressions reveal their particular cultural, ethnic, and ecclesial context. The poetic longings include the venerable “Stabat Mater dolorosa” (The Mother stood grieving beside the cross), a Medieval hymn ascribed to Jacopone da Todi (c. 1236–1306); “Beneath the Cross of Jesus,” a Victorian hymn by Scotswoman Elizabeth Clephane (1830–1869); as well as the African American spiritual "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord."
The specific mention of Calvary is particularly prominent in nineteenth-century gospel songs, especially in the United States. Some more notable examples include “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” (“In the Cross”) (1869) by legendary Methodist hymnwriter Fanny Crosby (1820–1915); “I Will Sing the Wondrous Story” (1886) by Baptist minister Francis Rowley (1854–1952); and “Years I Spent in Vanity and Pride” (“At Calvary”) (ca. 1895) by Moody Bible Institute superintendent William R. Newell (1868–1956). The word “Calvary” was still central to evangelicals in the mid-twentieth century, including Scottish/Canadian Baptist minister John M. Moore (1925–2017), composer of “Days are Filled with Sorrow and Care” (“Burdens Are Lifted at Calvary”) (1952), and Gospel Music Hall of Fame recipient Eugene M. Bartlett (1885–1941), composer of “I Heard an Old, Old Story” (“Victory in Jesus”) (1939).
To the latter group, we add “King of My life” (“Lead Me to Calvary”) by New England Quaker Jennie Evelyn Hussey (1874–1958), published in 1921, by far, her most commonly sung hymn. “Lead Me to Calvary” has the structure and theological approach of nineteenth-century gospel songs. This gospel hymn has all the salient features of the genre:
- compelling and memorable refrain,
- a succinct “hook”—a repeated line that captures the essence of the song’s theme,
- first-person singular perspective characteristically,
- direct and evocative language, and
- a singable and easily learned melody.
The effective use of anaphora (repeating the first word or words in successive phrases) characterizes the refrain. In addition, the tercet rhyming pattern—the rhyming of three successive phrases—is unusual and demonstrates more skill than many rhymes in this genre. United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young correctly calls this a “plangent refrain” (Young, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.):
Lest I forget Gethsemane,
Lest I forget thine agony,
Lest I forget thy love for me,
Lead me to Calvary.
The “hook”—“Lead me to Calvary”—is just the correct length. When singing all stanzas, it is repeated six times, just enough to solidify the theme in the singer’s mind and heart.
The hymn, written in the first-person singular, invites the singer to participate directly in the passion narrative. In stanza 1, the singer crowns the “King of my life”—a sign of royal devotion that alludes to Christ’s “thorn-crowned brow”—an effective play on words. The third line of the first stanza (“Lest I forget . . .”) foreshadows the powerful use of anaphora in the refrain. The refrain alludes to the Garden of Gethsemane. Stanza 2 describes the tomb where Christ lay in the time between his death and resurrection. In stanza 3, the singer joins Mary in the garden to witness the empty tomb—“Let me like Mary . . . / come with a gift for thee.” Stanza 4 takes a sudden turn in a different direction. Rather than continuing the narrative toward the risen Christ's triumphal appearance, the hymn writer, perhaps autobiographically, seeks to identify totally with the suffering Christ as a sign of devotion and solace—to bear the cross and cup of grief first borne by Christ.
The straightforward language refers to specific biblical accounts and evokes images in the singer's mind. The purpose, however, is not to recount the historical sequence of occurrences that took place during Christ’s passion and resurrection, but to experience those events—anamnesis in Greek—to relive and remember them personally—“Lest I forget . . . .”
Finally, the music by Pennsylvania gospel song composer William J. Kirkpatrick (1838–1921) complements the text by its direct and uncomplicated melodic form and harmonic progressions. The melody reaches its zenith on the third phrase of the refrain, leaping up a sixth after four measures of mostly midregister stepwise movement. One always sings the “hook” to the same stepwise melodic fragment, covering the mere span of a major third.
The curious and somewhat perceptive reader may have had a nagging question from above: “How does this hymn fit with the life of Jennie Hussey, a New England Quaker?” Hymn singing in a congregational sense during the “silent” meetings of the Society of Friends is not the usual practice. Founder George Fox encouraged singing in the Spirit. Both “outer” (psalm-singing sung by “the world”) and “inner” (songs sung by “the saints”) were allowed if started by a Society member in a meeting (Dobbs, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.). A glance at hymnology databases certainly indicates that Quakers used hymns in various settings outside their meetings. The latest collection, Quaker Song Book (1981), was compiled for these gatherings. Perhaps the most famous Quaker poet was John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892), who did not claim to be a hymn writer. Others set his verse to melodies for congregational use (Watson and Young, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.). Quakers were suspicious of hymns from the beginning as they were “forms without power” (Nickalls, 1952, 1975, p. 35).
Hussey, a fourth-generation Quaker, was an avid writer of poems, including 150 hymns. She cared for her invalid sister much of her adult life (Young, Canterbury Dictionary, n.d.). Writing poetry at the age of eight, she published her poems by age thirteen. Hussey also wrote children's stories for magazines and published her first hymn in 1898 at age twenty-four (Ashworth, 2020, n.p.). Similar to other frontier denominations, Quakers were influenced by the fervor of evangelical singing in the later nineteenth century. Some groups adapted their historic meeting practices to incorporate congregational singing in a programmed manner.
Hymnologist and music educator Ann Divine weaves these threads together to provide more insight into the poet’s life:
When in her later years Jenny (sic) Evelyn Hussey asked to be baptized, she explained to the minister that she had been hidden away in the country most of her life and before she died, she wanted others to know that she loved Jesus. Descended from a long line of Quakers (who did not practice [outward sacraments]), Hussey spent her life selflessly taking care of an invalid sister. Never complaining, she too was later stricken with deforming arthritis. What an irony that this self-sacrificing woman, who accepted her anonymity with quiet grace, should be remembered through this her hymn. Knowing these circumstances, stanza 4 takes on new relevance:
May I be willing, Lord, to bear daily my cross for thee, even the cup of grief to share— thou hast borne all for me. (Hustad, 1991, no. 211)
The hymn found a home among Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic. It first appeared in New Songs of Praise and Power, No. 3 (Philadelphia, 1921) with Kirkpatrick’s tune, now called DUNCANNON (LEST I FORGET / LEAD ME TO CALVARY). Duncannon is both a village in Ireland (reflecting the composer's Scottish/Irish roots) and the name of a town in Pennsylvania where the composer was born.
The hymn is especially popular in Evangelical and African American collections. Other than modifying older pronouns (Thee, Thine, Thy), the only significant modifications of the text appear in The New Century Hymnal (1995), where the editors changed all first-person singular pronouns to plural forms (we, us, our). The incipit was modified to “Ruler of life, we crown you now.” Hymnary.org lists translations of the hymn in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish.
An interesting footnote to Hussey's poetic accomplishments was a poem titled "The War Dog," the true story of a stray dog that attached itself to a soldier from Pennsylvania. The dog refused to leave its master's body when he fell in battle. The dog Sallie was adopted by the Eleventh Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, remaining with the soldiers until she was shot and killed at the Battle of Hatcher’s Run, Virginia, in 1864. A cast bronze replica of Sallie is in Gettysburg National Park (see more at Ashworth, 2020, n.p.).
“King of My Life” (“Lead Me to Calvary”) lives on today in many countries and styles. Of particular interest to this writer was a recent version from Indonesia sung in Bahasa as a part of a Passion Week Pageant with creative choral movement (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jPxv4xFqGUQ&feature=emb_title). To the south of Indonesia is the upbeat rendering by New Creation, a male ensemble from Papua New Guinea (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D6XvTyYrM0c). In contrast, The Soul Stirrers, an African American male quintet, offer a classic gospel interpretation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDenH0JE14Y&feature=emb_title).
Canadian Contemporary Christian artist Ali Matthews offers this styling (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_z0ywqiUKw&feature=emb_title).
Jennie Hussey died at age 84 in Concord, New Hampshire, and is buried in the Friends Cemetery in Merrimack County, New Hampshire, where she was born.
Margaret Ashworth, “The Midweek Hymn: Lead Me to Calvary, The Conservative Woman (May 20, 2020), https://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/the-midweek-hymn-lead-me-to-calvary (accessed December 29, 2020).
Jack P. B. Dobbs, “Quaker Hymnody,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/q/quaker-hymnody (accessed December 29, 2020).
“Jennie Evelyn Hussey,” Findagrave.com, https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/76610485/jennie-evelyn-hussey (accessed December 29, 2020).
Donald P. Hustad, The Worshiping Church: A Hymnal—Worship Leaders’ Edition (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1991).
John L. Nickalls, ed., The Journal of George Fox (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952, Revised Edition, 1975).
J. Richard Watson and Carlton R. Young, “John Greenleaf Whittier,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/john-greenleaf-whittier (accessed December 29, 2020).
J. Richard Watson, “King of My Life, I Crown Thee Now,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/k/king-of-my-life,-i-crown-thee-now (accessed December 29, 2020).
Carlton R. Young, “Jennie E. Hussey,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/j/jennie-e-hussey (accessed December 29, 2020).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.