History of Hymns: “Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation”
By C. Michael Hawn
“Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation”;
7th cent. Latin, translated by John Mason Neale,
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 559
Christ is made the sure foundation,
Christ the head and cornerstone;
Chosen of the Lord and precious,
Binding all the church in one;
Holy Zion’s help forever,
And her confidence alone.
When it comes to translating hymns written originally in Latin or Greek, John Mason Neale (1818-1866), sometimes called the “prince of translators,” has no peer. The son of an Anglican clergyman, Neale intended to follow the same path. Hymn scholar Leon Litvack notes, “Neale entered Cambridge as an Evangelical, but emerged an Anglo-Catholic.” Fascinated by the tracts of the Oxford Movement, he became intensely interested in the medieval church. The result was an interest in a “high church” in contrast to an “evangelical” perspective that influenced developments in liturgy and architecture as well as hymn singing.
Neale was a student of worship in the early church and one of the first to translate ancient Greek and Latin texts into metrical English for singing. American hymnologist William Reynolds notes that “His strong attachment to the old Breviary hymns [of the medieval church] caused him to urge the omission of the Protestant hymns from the Anglican service in favor of translations of medieval hymns.”
Though an ordained Anglican priest, Neale was unable to serve a parish due to his health. He was appointed as a warden of a home for indigent old men, but was not permitted to serve as a priest because he had alienated the hierarchy of the Anglican Church due to his independent spirit regarding his beliefs and rigorous devotional practices. His minimal caretaker duties, however, allowed Neale time to pursue his scholarly studies.
Most hymn singers know Neale through such classic hymns as “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 224), “All Glory, Laud and Honor” (UM Hymnal, 280), “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (UM Hymnal, 211), and “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (UM Hymnal, 184). His translations were published in collections such as Hymns of the Eastern Church (1862) and Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences (1851, 1863). Neale’s work gained increasing prominence in the trial edition of the famous English hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1859), and set the tone of this influential hymnal, whose most recent edition appeared in 2013. Some editions of this hymnal contain more than sixty of Neale’s works. Though he has many original hymns, he is now remembered primarily for his translations, ten of which appear in The United Methodist Hymnal.
Taken from the Latin monastic hymn “Urbs beata Jerusalem,” dating between the sixth and seventh centuries, the original Latin was written for the dedication of a church, appearing in a manuscript printed in Daniel, Thesaurus Hymnologicus I with a Roman Brevary text. Neale’s first version translated the two parts of the Latin text as a single hymn for his 1851 publication cited above. He divided it into two for the Hymnal Noted Part I (1852), the first part becoming “Blessed City, heavenly Salem,” and the second part being our hymn. The first hymn was to be sung at the Vigil in the monastic offices (night) with the second section sung at Lauds (dawn). The final stanza is a doxology that could be sung at both services. The original music was an unmetered, unaccompanied plainsong melody.
Effective singing translations are not easy to prepare. They are actually new hymns, though inspired by a text in another language. Compare a literal translation of the original Latin with Neale’s version offered at the beginning of this article:
The cornerstone and foundation,
The parallel with Ephesians 2:20-22 is striking: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (NKJV).
I Peter 2:4-7 adds even more context for the hymn: “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture,
‘Behold, I lay in Zion
A chief cornerstone, elect, precious,
And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.’
Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient,
‘The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.’” (NKJV)
Neale’s original translation has been altered significantly for today’s hymnals, and the flowing plainsong melody has been replaced by the stately tune Westminster Abbey composed by the famous English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Yet something of this song from deep in our Christian past remains and still informs our faith today if we will allow ourselves to sing with the saints.
For the entire text, including a missing stanza, see http://www.hymnary.org/text/christ_is_made_the_sure_foundation.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.