Article

History of Hymns: “Go to Dark Gethsemane”

by Brent Kern

"Go to Dark Gethsemane"
James Montgomery
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 290

James Montgomery

“Go to dark Gethsemane,
ye that feel the tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see,
watch with Him one bitter hour,
Turn not from His griefs away;
learn of Jesus Christ to pray.”


“Go to Dark Gethsemane” is a Lenten hymn that spotlights scenes from the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life. 

It takes us on a journey from the Garden of Gethsemane where we are charged to stand and watch, to the judgment hall and our denial of him, to the cross where we witness his death and his grace, and finally to his glorious resurrection and our redemption. We become part of the drama of Christ’s passion and resurrection. 

The poet repeats the phrase “learn of” at the end of each stanza, charging us to apply each scene to our lives. James Montgomery uses repetition to draw attention to what he considers important about each scene and each stanza. 

“Learn of Jesus Christ to pray” encourages us to remember the scene of the garden and to go to God in fervent prayer. “Learn of Christ to bear the cross” is a charge to lay down our lives, take up the cross and follow Christ. “Learn of Jesus Christ to die” is a reminder of what Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” 

Montgomery, considered one of the most important hymn writers of the English language, wrote this beautiful hymn in 1820. He was born on Nov. 4, 1771, in Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Moravian missionary John Montgomery, and died April 30, 1854, in Sheffield, England. 

When Montgomery was 5 years old, his parents moved him to a Moravian settlement at Bracehill, Ireland, near Ballymena in Antrim County. Soon after, his parents accepted a call to the mission field and left him behind in Bracehill. He never saw his parents again. They both died while in the Barbados Islands. 

At age 7, Montgomery was enrolled at Fulneck Seminary in Yorkshire, where he would remain for the next nine years. Struggling to meet the expectations of his instructors, he left the school at age 16 and became an apprentice at a chandler’s shop in Mirfield. 

After five years, he tired of the work and took an apprenticeship with Joseph Gales, the owner and publisher of the Sheffield Register. For two years he learned about the publishing business, and in 1794, when Gales was forced to flee the country to avoid imprisonment, Montgomery took over the Register and changed its name to the Sheffield Iris. 

Montgomery published and managed the Sheffield Iris for 32 years. He used the Iris as a tool to distribute the 360 hymns written throughout his life. His most well-known hymns are “Angels, From the Realms of Glory,” “Go to Dark Gethsemane,” “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” “Songs of Praise the Angels Sang” and “Stand Up and Bless the Lord.” 

Montgomery’s “Go to Dark Gethsemane” is still one of his most widely used hymns, most often sung during Lent or during Holy Week. The first three stanzas are most commonly available in hymnals. The fourth stanza, though often omitted today, has been preserved in The United Methodist Hymnal. 

Even though the text is now over 185 years old, it has rarely been altered. Many hymns from this era use language that is no longer common in today’s hymns or speech. Hymnal editors typically remove antiquated language and replace it with modern equivalents, but this hymn has remained essentially intact. 

This beautiful somber hymn has stood the test of time. We benefit from the art and poetry of Montgomery still today.
 

Mr. Kern is a sacred-music student of Dr. Michael Hawn at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns, History of Hymns/Hymn Studies Related to Lent and Easter