History of Hymns: 'When Jesus Came to Jordan'
By C. Michael Hawn
“When Jesus Came to Jordan”
by Fred Pratt Green
The United Methodist Hymnal, 252
When Jesus came to Jordan
to be baptized by John,
he did not come for pardon
but as the sinless one.
He came to share repentance
with all who mourn their sins,
to speak the vital sentence
with which good news begins.*
*© 1980 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 20188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This is one of the early hymns by British Methodist pastor Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000). Pratt Green had a significant contribution to the composition of new hymns during the last three decades of the twentieth century. He belonged to what church music publisher George Shorney (1931-2011) called the “hymnic explosion” that began in Great Britain in the 1960s with Green, Fred Kaan (1929-2009), Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), and Brian Wren (b. 1936). Shorney published collections of their hymns at Hope Publishing Company (Carol Stream, IL), and they were quickly included in the “hymnal explosion” that took place during the last quarter of the twentieth century (Young, Shorney, n.p.).
“When Jesus came to Jordan” was first published in the United States in The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green (1982), one of the first single-author publications of hymns by Hope Publishing Company. Pratt Green describes the context that led to the creation of the hymn:
The hymn began life in 1973 at a time when Fred was having extensive correspondence with Dirk van Dissel, then an Anglican theological student at Trinity College, Melbourne, Australia. Dirk was concerned at the anticipated absence of liturgical office hymns in the Australian Hymn-Book then under discussion and in particular was seeking a hymn of the Baptism of Jesus. The correspondence discussed several drafts with immense care for detail (Green, 1982, pp. 34-35).
The result was a three-stanza hymn (220.127.116.11.D) on the baptism of Jesus that has found its way into a number of hymnals in the United States and Great Britain. The first hymnal publication was, however, not in the Australian hymnal, but in More Hymns Today (1980) in Great Britain. United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young responds to Pratt Green’s compositional process:
The development of the hymn demonstrates the poet’s ability to write within strict guidelines and his generous and engaging willingness to exchange several drafts of this text with the hymnal committee or other individuals who ask for the hymn, the end result being a new conduit for transmitting a facet of the Christian faith (Young, 1993, p. 694.)
“When Jesus came to Jordan” is appropriate for the First Sunday after Epiphany, designated as the Baptism of the Lord, for services of Baptismal Covenant, and reaffirmation of baptism. Each of the four gospels mention Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; and John 1:29-34). However, this hymn is not a descriptive retelling of the biblical narrative. The first two lines of the opening stanza allude to the event of the baptism of Jesus, along with a fleeting reference of the descending dove in stanza 2. The remainder of the hymn is theological reflection on the significance of Christ’s baptism – an event signifying the beginning of Christ’s ministry.
Stanza 1 focuses on Christ’s mission to “share repentance” (Matthew 4:17) and “speak . . . good news” (I Corinthians 15:1). In stanza 2, Christ “share[d] temptation” (Matthew 4:1-11; Hebrews 4:14-16) with us and died on the cross for us. The descending dove was a sign that “the hidden years had ended, / [and] the age of grace began.”
In stanza one, The United Methodist Hymnal makes one alteration from the original: “but as the sinless one” cited above was originally “but as the Father’s Son.” United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton R. Young describes the reason for the change as follows: “the change accentuates the poet’s apparent contradictory references in stanza 1:3-6 to Jesus, sinful as well as sinless” (Young, 1993, p. 694). Methodist hymnologist J. Richard Watson comments on this line, which caused some controversy in some quarters:
Stanza 1 contains the line “he came to share repentance”, which, for some literal-minded readers, implies that Jesus was not sinless. This has led to some petty argument, which has been dismissed by [others who indicate that] “Christ submitted to baptism as a symbolic act of identification with sinful humankind” (Watson, “When Jesus came to Jordan”, n.p.).
Stanza 3 invokes the Holy Spirit – “Come, Holy Spirit” – to help us “keep the vows we make” (John 14:16) so that we might break the “bondage” that restrains us (Romans 8:15). The hymn concludes by pointing toward the Resurrection and then Pentecost – the fulfillment of Christ’s ministry.
An integral part of Epiphany in the Eastern Orthodox Church on January 6, the Baptism of the Lord became a distinct feast in the Roman Catholic rite. For centuries, this feast was not observed, but with the liturgical calendar revisions initiated by Pope John XXIII during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the “Commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ” was restored. Pope Paul VI set the date as the first Sunday after January 6. This is a new feast for Protestant Christians, falling in the season after Epiphany (Ordinary Time) as one of the ways that God was manifest in Jesus Christ through mighty signs and teachings. The Baptism of the Lord begins these manifestations as an indication of the commencement of Jesus’ Sonship and ministry (White, 1990, p. 74).
An interesting biographical note: When Pratt Green retired from pastoral ministry in 1969, he had planned to devote himself to doing pastels. A committee of the Methodist Conference in Britain asked him to “write hymns for topics that seemed to be lacking, and hymn writing replaced water colors for most of the rest of his life” (Westermeyer, 2010, pp. 89-90). As a result, Fred Pratt Green has often been referred to as the Methodist successor to Charles Wesley.
Fred Pratt Green, The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1982).
J. Richard Watson, “When Jesus Came to Jordan,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed October 30, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/w/when-jesus-came-to-jordan.
Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).
James F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, Revised Edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980, 1990).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
_____, “George H. Shorney.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed October 30, 2019, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/g/george-h-shorney.
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.