Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Lead On, O King Eternal'

History of Hymns: 'Lead On, O King Eternal'

By C. Michael Hawn

Ernest shurtleff
Ernest W. Shurtleff

“Lead On, O King Eternal”
by Ernest W. Shurtleff
The United Methodist Hymnal, 580

Lead on, O King eternal,
the day of march has come;
henceforth in fields of conquest
thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
thy faith has made us strong;
and now, O King eternal,
we lift our battle song.

Hymns cannot be understood after reading (singing) only one stanza. Many might write this text off as another nineteenth-century militant hymn in the vein of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (UK, 1864), or an imperialistic mission hymn similar to “We've a Story to tell to the Nations” (UK, 1896). Situated between these two is “Lead On, O King Eternal” (USA, 1887), the product of Congregational minister Ernest W. Shurtleff (1862-1917) set to the rousing tune LANCASHIRE. Let’s look beyond line one of the first stanza—“Lead on, O King eternal”—and the closing line of the first stanza—“we lift our battle song”—and see what lies beneath the text and context of this hymn.

The hymn’s context was Shrutleff’s graduation from Andover Theological College (now the Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School) in 1887. Rather than a militaristic battle cry, the first stanza situates the hymn during the graduation ceremony with all the enthusiasm this entails. “The day of march has come” refers to the graduation itself, including the procession of graduates that takes place at such ceremonies. “Fields of conquest” describes the ministry upon which the graduates are now embarking. “Thy tents shall be our home” portrays the various places of ministry and service that lie ahead of the graduates. “Through days of preparation” is an apparent reference to the years of study that the graduates undertook and completed to reach this day. “Thy faith has made us strong” indicates that the graduates have grown in both academic ability and spiritual insight. Seen in this light, “our battle song” is an enthusiastic expression of zeal and commitment by the graduates rather than soldiers armed for a fight.

The second stanza supports this perspective. As Carl Daw aptly points out, “From a rhetorical perspective, the first stanza with all its bellicose imagery has actually been developed in order to be disowned, as the second half of the second stanza makes clear” (Daw, 2016, p. 272). The second stanza describes both the battle foe—“sin’s fierce war”—and the implements of battle are “deeds of love and mercy” rather than weapons deigned to kill a physical enemy. The “battle cry” is now a subdued “whisper [of the] sweet amen of peace.”

Lead on, O King eternal,
till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
and holiness shall whisper
the sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.

The rhetorical device is a powerful one. Singers sally forth enthusiastically to the battlefield in the first stanza only to find that they will not be wielding loud clashing swords or feel their adrenalin pumping to the “roll of stirring drums,” but hear “whisper[s] . . . of peace” and participate in “deeds of love and mercy.” The contrast could not be more striking, and the antithesis of ideas between the two stanzas clarifies the mission.

Paul Westermeyer astutely points out a possible problem at the end of stanza 2: the last two lines “reflect. . . the social gospel of its period, which had a positive Christ-like fervor for societal good, but also a hopeless notion that human effort can bring in the kingdom of God” (Westermeyer, 2010, p. 678). Westermeyer's reading, indeed, is a possible interpretation. An alternate understanding may be that “deeds of love and mercy,” rather than bringing in the kingdom of God, are signs of the arrival of the realm of God on earth. However, before passing final judgment, let us look at stanza 3:

Lead on, O King eternal,
we follow not with fears,
for gladness breaks like morning
where’er thy face appears.
Thy cross is lifted o’er us,
we journey in its light;
the crown awaits the conquest;
lead on, O God of might.

For many twenty-first-century singers, the male monarchial imagery and the crusader-like cross hoisted high may be beyond the pale. Indeed, “thy cross is lifted o’er us” has the ring of the familiar line, “with the cross of Jesus going on before” (see the refrain of “Onward, Christian Soldiers”). This comparison is tempered somewhat by the striking imagery of lines three and four of the final stanza: “for gladness breaks like morning / where’er thy face appears.” These lines are a possible paraphrase of the delightful description found in Isaiah 51:11: “Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away” (KJV). In the spirit of hymns of this era, “the crown” is a metaphor for heaven, pointing the singer to the ultimate culmination of the battle—not a battle for colonial imperialism, but a “journey” toward eternal “light.”

I Timothy 1:17 (in the KJV) is the basis for the incipit (first line) of each stanza: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever.” Interestingly, this is the same passage that inspired the incipit of “Immortal, invisible, God only wise” (1867). The NRSV and other recent translations soften the incipit somewhat with “King of the ages.” The New Century Hymnal (1995) is known for supplanting male, monarchial, and militaristic images with gender-neutral, egalitarian, and peace language. The committee’s rewriting of stanza 1 follows:

Lead on eternal Sovereign,
we follow in your way;
loud rings your cry for justice,
your call for peace this day:
Through prayerful preparation,
your grace has made us strong,
to carry on the struggle
to triumph over wrong.

Though The New Century Hymnal indicates “alt.” by the author’s name, it is perhaps fairer to say that this is a new hymn inspired by Shurtleff’s original work.

Are we asking too much for congregations to undertake this kind of work to reinterpret a hymn composed 125 years ago that is full of images that may not resonate culturally or theologically today? Sometimes we must wrestle with the saints to understand them and ourselves. As a seminary professor for more than forty years, I have been to many graduations. The enthusiasm is palpable. The graduates are ready to charge into the fray. To suggest that the vocation of the graduates will not be a struggle or that they will not grapple daily with “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12) would be both unrealistic and disingenuous. It is easy to open the hymnal to a given page. However, hymn singing is hard work.

Shurtleff, a Boston native, was a Congregational minister. He studied at Harvard University, New Church Theological Seminary (Swedenborgian), and Andover Theological Seminary (B.D., 1888). His contemporaries knew him at Andover for his organ playing on Sundays for services at the Seminary’s Stone Chapel. Following his ordination (1889), he pastored congregations in California (1889-90), Massachusetts (1891-98), and Minnesota (1895-1905). He was awarded an honorary D.D. in 1905 from Ripon College (Wisconsin) before moving to Frankfurt am Main in Germany with his wife Helen (1878-1968), where he founded the American Church (1905). In 1906, Shurtleff became director of student activities in the Academy Vitii in Paris. During World War I, he performed relief work in Paris, where he died. He is buried at Cambridge, Massachusetts. A prolific writer at a young age, he published several works, including Poems (1883), New Year’s Peace (1885), Song of Hope (1886), Shadow of the Angel (1886), and Song on the Waters (1913) [Hughes, 1980, p. 549].

The hymn was first published in the graduation program of Andover Theological Seminary in 1888 and then appeared in Hymns of Faith (1890). The future of the hymn text was assured when it was included in The Hymnal (1895), published by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. under the editorship of the leading hymnologist of his day, Louis F. Benson (1855-1930). The text was paired to a variety of tunes until early in the twentieth century when it found a home with LANCASHIRE by London composer Henry Smart (1813-1879), possibly for the first time in The Methodist Sunday School Hymnal (1911). Methodist publications championed this pairing, gradually gaining influence. By 1930, “Lead On, O King Eternal” appeared almost exclusively with LANCASHIRE in the United States.

The inscription on Shurtleff’s tombstone reads as follows:

Here Lyeth buried
the body of Ernest
Warburton Shurtleff
who dies August 24 1917
at Dinard France in
the 55th year of his age

The path of the just is
as the shining light.

The final sentence draws upon images in the third stanza of the hymn.


Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).

Charles W. Hughes, American Hymns Old and New: Notes on the Hymns and Biographies on the Authors and Composers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).

Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).

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.

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