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History of Hymns: "Take Up Thy Cross"

By C. Michael Hawn

"Take Up Thy Cross"
Charles W. Everest
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 415

C. Michael Hawn

"Take up thy cross," the Savior said,
"if thou wouldst my disciple be;
deny thyself, the world forsake,
and humbly follow after me."

A passage from the synoptic gospels sets the stage for this hymn: "And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it" (KJV, Mark 8:34-35; also in Matthew 16:24-25 and Luke 9:23-24).

According to Methodist hymnologist J. R. Watson, Charles W. Everest (1814-1877) first recited a poem, "Vision of Death," on August 2, 1837, as a student in a class at Washington College, Hartford, Connecticut (now Trinity College). By request, he published it a month later. In 1845, the poem was included with others that the author called "Fugitive Poems" in a collection entitled Vision of Death; and Other Poems. "Take up thy cross" was among the other poems referenced in the title along with the quotation from Matthew 16:24, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."

It is likely, however, that this poem was written at least a decade earlier. Baptist hymnologist Paul A. Richardson notes its appearance in Union Sabbath-School Hymns (1835). Indeed, this must have been one of the poems referred to by the author in the preface to Vision of Death (1845) when he said, "many [of the Fugitive Poems] have appeared in magazines and other periodicals."

This hymn is distinctive because it was one of only two hymns by American authors to appear in the significant British collection Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). The hymn by Everest originally had five stanzas. The editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern, chaired by William Henry Baker (1821-1877), himself a fine hymn writer, altered the original poem for publication, and most of these alterations were retained for later hymnals including The United Methodist Hymnal (1989).

Hymns Ancient and Modern, compiled during a high literary time in England for use in the Anglican Church, is known for its alteration of texts. This hymn is an excellent case study of the kind of care used by the committee in making alterations. As an example, see the original third stanza by Everest (on the left) next to the altered version in Hymns Ancient and Modern that is also included in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989):

Take up thy cross! nor heed the shame,

Take up thy cross, nor heed the shame,

And let thy foolish pride be still:

Nor let thy foolish pride rebel;

Thy Lord refused not e'en to die

Thy Lord for thee the Cross endured,

Upon a cross, on Calvary's hill.

To save thy soul from death and hell.

The altered version is significantly clearer in meaning and more emotionally engaging than the original. The practice of altering original texts has a long history. Not all of the alterations in the Anglican collection were greeted with equal favor, however. In fact, Hymns Ancient and Modern was dubbed by some as "Hymns Altered and Mangled."

Most hymnals have dropped the original fourth stanza as it appeared in the 1861 hymnal:

Take up thy cross then in His strength,
And calmly every danger brave:
'Twill guide thee to a better home,
And lead to victory o'er the grave.

To the original five stanzas, the editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern added a sixth doxological stanza, perhaps derived from the chanted psalm tradition of the Anglican Church which, following the rendition of a psalm in Anglican Chant, added a Gloria Patri at the end:

To Thee, Great Lord, the One in Three,
All praise for evermore ascend;
O grant us in our home to see
The heavenly life that knows no end.

Charles Everest graduated from Washington College in 1838 and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1842. He served for thirty-one years as the Episcopal rector at the Church at Hamden, Connecticut. In addition to Vision of Death (1837), he published Babylon, a Poem (1838) and The Poets of Connecticut: With Biographical Sketches (1843). Everest's The Poets of Connecticut still remains available on Amazon.com in an exact reproduction.

"Take up thy cross" remains one of the great hymns of Christian discipleship. As is the case with many hymns from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, faithfulness and even suffering in this life leads to heaven, or as Everest states:

For only those who bear the cross, May hope to wear the glorious crown!

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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