We don’t usually link hymn-writers to politicians. As such, it is hard to believe that the author of the hymn ‘In the Cross of Christ I Glory’ was written by a Member of Parliament of Great Britain and a governor of Hong Kong. Knighted by Queen Victoria in 1854, Sir John Bowring (1792-1872) wrote the lyrics of this splendid hymn in his early 30s.
Bowring was known as a remarkable linguist who could converse in over 100 different languages. As an idealistic youth in 1820, he wrote: “It will be the height of my ambition to do something which may connect my work with the literature of the age.”1 However, he did not pursue his dream of becoming a composer or translator of poems, or a writer of political and religious themes. Instead, Bowring became a hard-hearted politician, “full of conceit, without any clear idea of political principles on a large scale”.2
Based on the Apostle Paul’s words “far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14, RSV), Bowring’s hymn text may never have achieved popularity if not for an American organist and choir leader of the Central Baptist Church of Norwich, Connecticut.3
Ithamar Conkey was bitterly disappointed when only one choir member came for a Sunday morning service in 1849. After pondering over the words of ‘In the Cross of Christ I Glory’, which the pastor had quoted in the service, Conkey composed the tune. He named the tune after Mrs Beriah Rathbun, the faithful soprano who had turned up.
The first stanza depicts the cross in the light of history, and sees it “towering over the wrecks of time”. Through the ages, great empires have risen and fallen together with their leaders. Yet the “sublime” cross has outshone and outlived them all.4 The remaining stanzas speak of the cross as a symbol of faith and consolation amid life’s trials and disappointments.
Many boast in their talents, learning, wealth, and accomplishments.5 May we, like Paul, boast and glory in the cross of Christ, on which we are crucified with Him (Gal. 2:19-20). When that happens, the world is dead to us and we are dead to the world!6
Dr Yeo Teck Beng
– is Principal of the Methodist School of Music, and a member of Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church.
In the Cross of Christ I glory (The United Methodist Hymnal, #295)
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
When the woes of life o’er-take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me,
Lo! It glows with peace and joy.
When the sun of bliss is beaming,
Light and love upon my way,
From the cross the radiance streaming
Adds more lustre to the day.
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure,
By the cross are sanctified;
Peace is there that knows no measure,
Joys that through all time abid.
Words: John Bowring, 1825
Music: Ithamar Conkey, 1849
1 Ernest K. Emurian, Living Stories of Famous Hymns (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1955), 61.
2 Ibid., 61.
3 Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Mich: Kregel Publications, 1990), 115.
4 Frank Colquhoun, A Hymn Companion: Insight into Three Hundred Christian Hymns (Wilton: Morehouse Barlow, 1985), 84.
5 Sermon by Charles H. Spurgeon, “The Cross Our Glory”, 13 Sept 1885. http://www.angelfire.com/va/sovereigngrace/crossourglory.html
6 Sermon by John Piper, “Christ Crucified, Our Boast”, 13 Feb 2000. http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/christ-crucified-our-boast