History of Hymns: “To Mock Your Reign, O Dearest Lord”

by Lindsay Smith, Special Contributor

“To Mock Your Reign, O Dearest Lord”
Fred Pratt Green
UM Hymnal, No. 285

To mock your reign, O dearest Lord,
they made a crown of thorns;
set you with taunts along that road
from which no one returns.

They could not know, as we do now,
how glorious is that crown;
that thorns would flower upon your brow,
your sorrows heal our own. *

Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) served as a Methodist minister in and around London from 1928 until his retirement in 1969. In 1969, he served on the planning committee for Hymns and Songs, a supplement to the hymnal of the British Methodist Church. His fellow committee members urged him to write hymns to “fill gaps” in subject matter. Thus began his long and fruitful career as a hymn writer.

Pratt Green wrote this haunting and beautiful text in 1972 in response to a letter from Francis Westbrook. Pratt Green and Westbrook, a composer, often worked together and wrote frequently to each other. Their correspondence is preserved in Pratt Green’s scrapbooks, which are held at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

Fred Pratt Green

In his letter, Westbrook asked Pratt Green to provide a new text for THIRD MODE MELODY by Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Westbrook noted that the text used in the English Hymnal (1906) was “impossible”; he wanted to compose an anthem from the “unearthly beauty” of this melody with a text that was “virile yet wistful.” The result was Pratt Green’s response to Westbrook’s request.

The text was paired first with THIRD MODE MELODY and published in Sixteen Hymns of Today (1978) by the Royal School of Church Music. In More Hymns for Today (1982), published by Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd., the hymn was given a new tune which combined the first four lines of ST. MARY with the second half of WIGTOWN to highlight the juxtaposition found in the text.

In the UM Hymnal, it is set to KINGSFOLD, which suits the second half of each stanza better than the first. The two halves of each stanza are set in sharp contrast: a first half filled with images of Christ’s crucifixion, and a second half that expresses the hope of resurrection.

The opening lines of each stanza echo Matthew 27:27-32. The first stanza focuses on the crown of thorns, fashioned by the Roman soldiers to mock Christ. Pratt Green highlights the paradox in each stanza with the line, “They could not know, as we do now.” The crown becomes glorious as Christ’s “sorrows heal our own.”

In the second stanza, Pratt Green turns to the purple cloak used by the soldiers, again to mock Christ. The paradox of this stanza is that “you will your robe of mercy throw, around our naked shame.” In the final stanza, the “sceptered reed” and mock adoration of the soldiers is set in paradox with the Kingdom which knows no end; “though empires rise and fall, your Kingdom shall not cease to grow till love embraces all.”

Pratt Green also highlights characteristics of Christ in each stanza with an oxymoron. In the first, Jesus is called “dearest,” even as he is being taunted on the road. In the second stanza, he is called “gracious,” though the soldiers are turning him into the punch line of a joke. In the third stanza, Jesus is called “patient,” as the soldiers pretend to bow to him.

The poetic device of hypotyposis—or lifelike description—is used as Pratt Green conveys the scene through vivid, yet simple words. In the first half of each stanza, it is easy to feel we are witnesses to the crucifixion; then we are reminded that this is not the end of the story. We examine the suffering of Christ; then we turn to the full narrative of the Bible and the hope of the resurrection.

In this way we remember Christ’s healing sacrifice. We remember the unmerited mercy Christ gives. We remember that God’s Kingdom will not fall and will not cease to grow. We remember God’s love that embraces everyone.

* © 1973 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Ms. Smith, a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

Categories: History of Hymns

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