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History of Hymns: "Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know"

"Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know"
Johann C. Schwedler, translated by Benjamin H. Kennedy
UM Hymnal, No. 163

C. Michael Hawn

Ask ye what great thing I know,
that delights and stirs me so?
What the high reward I win?
Whose the name I glory in?
Jesus Christ, the crucified.

This hymn is characterized by forthrightness and a sure belief in the crucified Christ.

The first five of the original six stanzas begin with at least one and as many as three questions. Hymns often employ a technique of the rhetorical question. However, none of these questions are rhetorical; the staunch refrain concludes each stanza with the resolute answer: “Jesus Christ, the crucified.”

The questions in this hymn tell us more about the author’s intent than do the answers. In stanza one the queries require a response stating who is the greatest, most delightful, highest reward, and who has the most glorious name.

Stanza two gives us more insight into the nature of Christ—one who is all-powerful and all-compassionate, seeking a being that “defeats the fiercest foes,” “consoles the saddest woes” and “revives the fainting heart.”

The third stanza employs a powerful antithesis that points to a singular being who is both “life in life” and “the death of death.” The stanza then poses what seems to be a personal question, though all Christians can ask the same: “Who will place me on his right. . . ?”

One stanza that isn’t included in the UM Hymnal enlarges upon the answer:

What is faith’s foundation strong?
What awakes my heart to song?
He who bore my sinful lead,
purchased for me peace with God,
Jesus Christ, the crucified.

The questioner was Johann Christoph Schwedler (1672-1730), the son of a German farmer and local magistrate, and a “preacher, hymn writer, and humanitarian” according to UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton Young. Following graduation from the University of Leipzig in 1697, he served as a church assistant, deacon and pastor in only one location, Niederweise, until his death.

Schwedler was a prolific hymn writer with hundreds of hymns. He lived near his friend Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (1700-1780), a fellow composer, social reformer and supporter of the Moravian Church. Zinzendorf’s hymns influenced John Wesley after he encountered Moravians on the ship to America in 1736.

In the 19th century, our hymn was translated twice from the original German. First, “Do You Ask What Most I Prize?” was prepared for Moravian hymnals. “Ask Ye What Great Thing I Know,” more commonly used, was written by Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804-1880) and included in Hymnologia Christiana, or Psalms and Hymns Selected and Arranged in the Order of the Christian Seasons (1863).

According to Dr. Young, the 1863 collection was a key source for 19th-century hymnody, containing several of Kennedy’s original hymns and translations, including others from the German language. Kennedy was an English minister and educator known for his work in teaching Latin.

Our hymn’s final stanza—unlike the others—asks no questions and stands as a powerful assertion of faith:

This is that great thing I know;
this delights and stirs me so:
faith in him who died to save,
him who triumphed o’er the grave:
Jesus Christ, the crucified.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.