Home History of Hymns: “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”

History of Hymns: “In the Cross of Christ I Glory”

"In the Cross of Christ I Glory"
John Bowring
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 295

John Bowring

In the cross of Christ I glory,
towering o’er the wrecks of time;
all the light of sacred story
gathers round its head sublime.

Sir John Bowring (1792-1872) was a distinguished scholar, ranked by some as one of the great minds of his day in the English-speaking world. Among his gifts was his ability as a linguist, publishing translations of poetry from such varied languages as Russian, Batavian, Spanish, Polish, Serbian, Bohemian, Magyar, Czech and Hungarian.

Bowring was also a social progressive, advocating free trade, parliamentary reform, education for all and prison reforms, according to hymnologist Albert Bailey.

Few hymn writers have been as involved in politics. Knighted in 1854, Bowring helped develop commercial relationships on behalf of Great Britain, traveling to France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Syria and Siam (now Thailand).

Bowring also was twice a member of Parliament, a consul at Canton (in charge of trade in China) and a governor of Hong Kong. He was evidently relieved of his duties in Hong Kong because he “was full of conceit and without any very clear idea of political principles on a large scale.” Mr. Bailey notes that some suggest that Bowring’s policies and poor relationships with the Chinese contributed in part to the second Opium War (1856-1858)—a situation that led to the Chinese putting a price on his head.

Yet Bowring’s political skills must have been respected in some quarters. Even after retirement in 1860, his public service continued as a commissioner to Italy and other diplomatic posts in Europe and Hawaii. With the exception of John Newton, the former slave trader turned Anglican priest who penned “Amazing Grace,” we rarely find hymn writers with such a colorful and international lifestyle.

Despite a demanding political and diplomatic career, Bowring maintained an active avocation as a translator of poetry, composer of original poems and writer of essays on political and religious themes. Mr. Bailey notes that the “hymns that have lived were all written when he was about 30 years old, when his poetic interests were uppermost, and the idealism of youth made him the champion of the downtrodden and the underprivileged.”

“In the cross of Christ I glory” (1825) was composed while the author was in his early thirties. Appearing in Hymns by John Bowring (1825), the theme and language suggests a much more mature poet. Late 19th-century hymnologist John Julian suggests that Galatians 6:14 provides the basis for this hymn: “Far be it for me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (KJV).

Isaac Watts used the same scriptural foundation for his famous “When I survey the wondrous cross,” but the effect is much different. Watts’ 18th-century hymn focuses on the crucified Christ and entreats the singer to view Christ on the cross. Bowring’s 19th-century hymn has the expansive sense of history and time that typifies Romantic poetry of this era.

British hymnologist J.R. Watson notes that the “image [of a cross] is a fine one . . . it allows the reader to glimpse the Cross standing over a ruined universe: into the Cross are drawn all the emotions, the woes of life, the good moments of light and love, so that both are ‘sanctified’.”

This “sublime” cross (mentioned in the opening and closing stanzas) is a wonderful oxymoron, and as Mr. Watson points out, “an important word in the Romantic period . . . [making] this hymn a splendid example of hymnwriting in the age of Blake and Wordsworth.”
It is one of the paradoxes of Christianity that an instrument of torture becomes a symbol of faith for all time where “All the light of sacred story/Gathers round its head sublime.”

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

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