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History of Hymns: "The Head that Once Was Crowned with Thorns"

By C. Michael Hawn

"The Head that Once Was Crowned with Thorns"
by Thomas Kelly
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 326

Thomas Kelly

The head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now;
A royal diadem adorns
The mighty victor’s brow.

The Ascension of Christ forty days after Easter is a longstanding observance of the Christian church. Although two gospels mention the Ascension (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-53), the most detailed description of the Ascension is found in Acts 1:9-11: "And when he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they were looking steadfastly into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; who also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was received up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye beheld him going into heaven" (American Standard Version). Just as the bodily resurrection of Christ has been a cornerstone of Christian faith historically, the bodily ascension of Christ to heaven is also of major significance. The angels instruct the apostles that Jesus will return in like manner when the second coming occurs.

"The head that once was crowned" fills in the gaps of the scriptural account by describing Christ's presence in heaven and the glory of those who "dwell above" (stanza three) with him in "heaven's eternal light" (stanza two).

Thomas Kelly (1769-1855), born in Lellyville, Ireland, was a fine poet and musician. He was known for giving away his substantial wealth to help the poor and to build churches. The son of a judge, he trained to be a lawyer. Convicted of his sin by The Life, the Walk, and the Triumph of Faith, treatises by William Romaine (1714-1795), an evangelical in the Church of England, he became an ordained minister in the Church of Ireland. Because of his powerful preaching and support of the rising evangelical movements, Kelly was banned from preaching in the Church of England and joined the ranks of "dissenting" ministers.

British hymnologist J. R. Watson notes that in spite of being banned in 1794 by the Archbishop of Dublin from preaching in churches in the diocese, Kelly "continued to preach in chapels and churches outside the Archbishop’s jurisdiction, and in 1802 he founded the Kellyites, an independent sect of his followers. He had married a very wealthy woman; and in the years after 1802, he was able to build chapels in a number of towns, most of which closed in the years following his death."

Kelly, who was considered a good musician, wrote 765 hymns. Of these, "The Head that once was crowned" was published in the fifth edition of Kelly’s Hymns on Various Passages of Scripture (1820). It first appeared in a Methodist hymnal in 1849, but with only five stanzas. The current hymnal includes all six stanzas.

The hymn text is based on Hebrews 2:9-10 which speaks of Christ’s glory and the universal message of grace that is available because of Christ’s suffering: "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings." (KJV)

Thomas Kelly may have been inspired by a poem composed by the famous John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), in the poetic collection One Thing is Needful, or Serious Meditations upon the Four Last Things, Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell (c. 1664). The 37th stanza of the poem "Of Heaven" contains the lines that probably stimulated Kelly’s imagination as he penned the incipit of the hymn. Note not only the similarity of words, but also the same metrical pattern:

The head that once was crowned with thorns
Shall now with glory shine;
That heart that broken was with scorns
Shall flow with life divine.

Kelly employs the poetic device of hypotyposis – a vivid description of a scene or events in words – that provides the singer with a glimpse of the splendor of heaven in the monarchial terms of his day. The glory of heaven is contrasted with the suffering of the cross and the suffering of all who follow Christ on earth.

Appropriate for the Easter season and Ascension Sunday, the hymn links Christ’s suffering with his risen glory, and the evangelical message of grace can be found within each stanza. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, grace and love are manifest to all. Kelly’s love for the oppressed is evident as he addresses those who are now wearing a crown of thorns because of their devotion to the Lord. They are reminded that they, too, will reign in heaven next to Christ. Kelly ends the hymn with the paradoxical theme of Christianity: Christ’s death and suffering is the eternal hope for all people.

Kelly published three volumes of hymns in Dublin: A Collection of Psalms and Hymns Extracted from Various Authors (1802), Hymns on Various Passages of Scripture (1804), and Hymns by Thomas Kelly, not before Published (1815). J. R. Watson notes, "Kelly himself was a man of considerable learning and great energy. . . His finest hymns have a rare impetus and power that suggest that his strong evangelical preaching must have indeed been memorable."

C. Michael Hawn is the University Distinguished Professor of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

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