Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: "Beneath the Cross of Jesus"

History of Hymns: "Beneath the Cross of Jesus"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Beneath the Cross of Jesus"
by Elizabeth C. Clephane;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 297

Elizabeth C. Clephane

Beneath the cross of Jesus
I fain would take my stand,
the shadow of a mighty rock
within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness,
a rest upon the way,
from the burning of the noontide heat,
and the burden of the day.

Elizabeth Cecilia Douglas Clephane was born in Scotland in 1830 and died in 1869. The daughter of a county sheriff, she lived most of her brief life near Edinburgh.

Though in frail health most of her life, Elizabeth found the strength to help the poor and sick in her town. She and her sister gave all that they could spare to charity including, it is said, selling their horse and carriage for the benefit of the needy. The townspeople of Melrose referred to Elizabeth as “the Sunbeam.”

“Beneath the cross of Jesus,” focusing on the shelter of the cross, was first published three years after the author’s death in 1872 under the title “Breathings on the Border,” perhaps a double entendre referring to a geographical location near Melrose, the Scottish Borders, and a reference to the border between life and death. This poem and others of hers appeared in the Scottish Presbyterian magazine The Family Treasury, submitted by an anonymous source, perhaps a family member or friend. One source suggests that this hymn was written within one year of her death in 1868. British hymnologist. J.R. Watson mentions that an editorial emendation attached to the poem by the anonymous source submitting the poems said, these lines “express the experiences, the hopes and the longings of a young Christian lately released.”

Contained in the same collection was her famous narrative poem, “There were ninety and nine that safely lay.” Both of these hymns were promoted by the well-known American musical evangelist and songwriter Ira D. Sankey (1840-1908), who published them in his Sacred Songs and Solos (1873). Though Sankey composed a tune for the song entitled CLEPHANE, the almost universal pairing is with ST. CHRISTOPHER, composed by Bristol, England, musician, Frederick C. Maker (1844-1927).

The hymn is full of comforting, and perhaps paradoxical language, about the cross, after all, an instrument of the cruelest torture. These include in stanza two “the shadow of a mighty rock,” “a home within the wilderness,” “a rest upon the way.” An omitted third stanza provides additional images of consolation: a “happy shelter,” “refuge tried and sweet,” a “trysting place,” and “a ladder up to heaven,” a reference to Jacob’s ladder.

O safe and happy shelter,
O refuge tried and sweet,
O trysting place where heaven’s love
and heaven’s justice meet!
As to the exiled patriarch
that wondrous dream was given,
so seems my Savior’s Cross to me -
a ladder up to heaven.

Originally five stanzas, another omitted stanza, perhaps autobiographical, provides further insight into the comfort that the writer found in the shadow of the cross and the inspiration that the cross gave her as she anticipated her own death:

There lies beneath its shadow,
but on the further side,
the darkness of an open grave
that gapes both deep and wide;
and there between us stands the cross,
two arms outstretched to save,
like watchman set to guard the way
from that eternal grave.

Such explicit anticipation of and longing for death may seem somewhat morbid today, but echoes the Romantic literary sentiment of her time. Though appropriately sung during Lent and Holy Week today, this hymn is more of a personal meditation on the cross and one’s own mortality than a hymn written for a specific time of the Christian Year.

The contrast between this nineteenth-century Romantic perspective of the cross and the early seventeenth-century understanding expressed in the famous hymn by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), “When I survey the wondrous cross” (1707) is significant. Only the salient differences can be mentioned here. While Clephane’s cross is one of shelter and comfort, Watts’ cross is one of redemption. Clephane scarcely mentions the One who hung on the cross, while Watts focuses our attention to the dying Christ in stark detail in the first line of the following stanza (UMH 298):

See from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Clephane’s hymn incorporates an extensive list of comforting images, many biblical, while Watts interprets the scene of a dying Christ theologically. Following the first line of the stanza cited above, Watts, through the use of metaphor, transforms blood and water into “love and sorrow” and thorns into a regal crown. He concludes his hymn with a rhetorical question that cannot be answered except to say, “No! Nothing like this has ever happened in the history of the human race.”

Finally, Clephane places her encounter with the sheltering cross as an act of personal solace. She wants to remain spiritually in the shelter of the cross:
I take, O cross, thy shadow
for my abiding place;

Her final stanza states, she is “content to let the world go by,/to know no gain or loss. . .”. Watts, on the other hand, shifts our gaze from the crucified Christ to the “whole realm of nature” and calls for our total commitment:
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

The purpose of this comparison is not to ascribe a higher quality to one hymn over another, for both bear faithful witness to an encounter with the crucified Christ. The purpose is to demonstrate the difference between the early eighteenth century theological perspective of Isaac Watts and the spiritual encounter of a woman during the Romantic era of literature 160 years later.

Elizabeth Clephane’s reflection assumes a spiritual posture of meditation. Unlike what she states in her final stanza, “Content to let the world go by. . . :, this was not her ethical posture as she was not only aware of others’ plight, but also shared all she could spare to meet the needs of the poor and infirmed within the limitations of her frail health and resources. Given the rich symbolism that is part of the cross in Christian experience, we need to sing both of these hymns as well as many others on this theme.

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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