Home History of Hymns: "Lift high the cross"

History of Hymns: "Lift high the cross"

"Lift high the cross"
George W. Kitchin and Michael R. Newbolt
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 159

George W. Kitchin

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred name.
Come, Christians, follow this triumphant sign.
The hosts of God in unity combine.*

The Anglican Church, especially in large England cathedrals beginning in the 19th century, is known for elaborate and colorful processions, particularly on major feast days. Some of our favorite hymns were composed with processionals in mind.

“Lift high the cross” joins these earlier contributions as one of the great processional hymns in the Anglican tradition. The original version with 11 stanzas plus refrain was written for a festival service under the auspices of an important mission organization, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, held in Winchester Cathedral in 1887 by George William Kitchen (1883-1894), Dean of the Cathedral.

Kitchen’s original was altered by Anglican priest Michael Robert Newbolt (1874-1956), who later became Canon of Chester Cathedral, for the Supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern (1916). Through this publication the hymn has gained prominence around the English-speaking world.

“Lift high the cross” incorporates an important feature of processionals: the crucifer (cross-bearer) leads the stately procession down the long nave, lifting the cross high. This ritual use of the cross is a sign of the victory of the resurrection and finds a biblical basis in John 12:32, “And I, when I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (RSV).

Another influence comes from the fourth century, based on a story of the Emperor Constantine’s vision as told in Eusebius’s Life of Constantine, in which he saw a cross inscribed with the words, “In hoc signo vinces” (“in this sign [of the cross] you will conquer”). Constantine recognized Christianity officially as a religion of the state, providing a basis for further spread of Christianity.

The original first stanza read as follows:

Come, brethren, follow where our Captain trod,
Our King victorious, Christ the Son of God.

The Hymnal Revision Committee for The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) replaced this stanza with the one cited at the beginning of this article, rendering the language more inclusive and less militaristic. Smaller changes were made in other stanzas for the same reasons.

The hymn did not find voice in the United States until it was published in Hymns for the Living Church (1974), edited by hymnologist and professor Donald P. Hustad. Since that time, “Lift high the cross” has become a staple of many hymnals.

In additional to its use as for processionals, the hymn also expresses the understanding of the Church Militant (Ecclesia Militans), “those Christians on earth who are engaged in a continuous war against evil and the enemies of Christ,” and the Church Triumphant (Ecclesia Triumphans), “those Christians in heaven who have triumphed over evil and the enemies of Christ.”

Within this theological framework, one can appreciate the context of the hymn and what some would call its excessive militaristic language. UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes, “Our hymnal’s version provides the opportunity to express the spirit of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ without singing militaristic metaphors.”

Every great processional hymn must have stirring music. Sir Sydney Nicholson (1875-1947) wrote the tune CRUCIFER for the Supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern (1916), a publication for which he was the chief music advisor.

As British Methodist hymnologist J.R. Watson correctly points out, Nicholson “showed a fine sense of the potential of the words, the relatively subdued melody of the verses contrasting with the spectacular refrain.”

© 1974 Hope Publishing Company, Inc. Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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

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