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History of Hymns: "Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone"
by Thomas Shepherd
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 424

C. Michael Hawn

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
and all the world go free?
No, there's a cross for everyone,
and there's a cross for me.

Thomas Shepherd (1665-1739) tied his original poem to Simon of Cyrene who, according to Matthew 27:32, was compelled to carry Jesus' cross on the way to Golgotha. The original hymn reads,

Must Simon bear the cross alone,
And other saints be free?
Each saint of thine shall find his own
And there is one for me.
Whene'er it falls unto my lot,
Let it not drive me from
My God, let me ne'er be forgot
‘Till though hast lov'd me home.

Shepherd's poem appeared in a collection entitled Penitential Cries (1693), a collection of thirty-two hymns that was authored by John Mason (1646?-1694). The subtitle states that the collection was "Begun by the author of the Songs of praise and Midnight cry; and carried on by another hand." The "other hand" was apparently Thomas Shepherd. His hymn appears as number III under section "XXIX. For Universal Obedience" in the thirteenth edition (1735) available to this writer. What we have in our hymnal appears to be highly modified over centuries to such a degree that Shepherd might be considered the inspiration for the hymn rather than the author.

Stanza two appears to be originally from a collection of missionary hymns published in Norwich, England, in the early nineteenth century (c. 1810) by an unknown author. According to information supplied by Methodist hymnologist Fred Gealy, stanzas two and three appear in The Oberlin Social and Sabbath School Hymn Book, compiled by George N. Allen, from the mid-nineteenth century (between 1844 and 1849). The version used in most hymnals is taken without alteration from a collection prepared by the famous congregational minister and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) entitled Plymouth Collection of Hymns (1835).

Beecher's Collection includes two additional stanzas (four and five):

Upon the crystal pavement down
At Jesus' piercèd feet,
Joyful I'll cast my golden crown
And His dear Name repeat.

O precious cross! O glorious crown!
O resurrection day!
When Christ the Lord from Heav'n comes down
And bears my soul away.

The second stanza is reminiscent of "When I survey the wondrous cross" (1707) by the famous hymn writer Isaac Watts. In stanza three, Watts writes:

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?

The author(s) of stanza two of "Must Jesus bear the cross," dated roughly a century later would undoubted have known Watts' hymn. Whether intentionally or subconsciously, Watts' hymn may have influenced this stanza:

How happy are the saints above,
who once went sorrowing here!
But now they taste unmingled love,
and joy without a tear.

Watts' stanza was a reflection on the suffering cross where "love flowed mingled down." Because of Christ's death, the saints are able to "taste unmingled love."

Thomas Shepherd served as Vicar of Tilbrook, Bedfordshire, and then a nonconformist parish at Oundle, and at Kettering. Though he took Holy Orders and served for a time in Huntingdonshire and in Buckinghamshire, he seceded from the Church of England, and became pastor of the Castle Hill Meeting House (Independent), Nottingham in 1694. He moved to Bocking, near Braintree, Essex, where he began a parish in a barn in 1700. The congregation erected a chapel in 1707, and Shepherd remained with this church until the end of his life. More than thirty of his hymns appear in eighteenth and nineteenth-century hymnals, but none with near the popularity of the hymn he apparently inspired.

The tune MAITLAND was composed for this text by George N. Allen (1812-1877) and appeared with the text in his Oberlin Social and Sabbath School Hymn Book. It is interesting to speculate if the text and the tune influenced Thomas A. Dorsey's hymn, "Precious Lord, take my hand" (1932). Dorsey (1899-1965) wrote his hymn out of great personal family loss, a theme consistent with Shepherd's adapted and amended text. Dorsey's melody, PRECIOUS LORD, is almost identical to MAITLAND except for slight modifications in measures five and six and the change from 6/4 to 3/4 meter. Dorsey's harmonization as presented in The United Methodist Hymnal (No. 474) reflects more of the chromatic harmonies that were a part of the African American experience rather than the simpler chords of George Allen commonly found in the hymn tunes of the famous American educator and composer Lowell Mason (1792-1872).

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

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