Words: Swedish folk hymn, translated by Elmer L. Jorgenson, 1921
Music: NEW SWEDEN, Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church, 1921
"Christ, Thou Alone" is a translation by Elmer Leon Jorgenson, editor of the influential Great Songs of the Church series, from an unknown Swedish folk hymn. He also translated the German hymn "Weißt du, wie viel Sternlein stehen" into "Can you count the stars of evening?" and Julie von Haussman's "So nimm denn meine Hände" into "Take Thou my hand and lead me." Just how many languages did he speak? And what was his connection with these repertoires?
The Jorgenson family were immigrants from Denmark; according to Forrest McCann, his father was a member of the palace guard and his mother was a seamstress to the queen.(McCann, 219) The 1900 census for the Dublin/Roselma Precinct, Boone County, Nebraska, gives a snapshot of the Jorgenson family. (Dublin and Roselma were communities west of Albion, Nebraska, a little over two hours northwest of Lincoln, Nebraska.)
Elmer's father, Christ Jorgenson, was born in Denmark in October 1843, and was self-employed in farming. His wife, Nicoline, was born in Denmark in November 1844. The Jorgensons had been married 26 years, and were blessed with eight children, two of whom did not survive childhood. Their adult children, including Alfred (b. Feb. 1879) who was living at home, were born in Denmark; the family came to the United States in 1884. Elmer, age 14, was in school along with a younger sister, Alice, age 11. The younger two children were born in Nebraska. All of the family could read and write.(1900 U.S. Census)
Given his age and the date of the family's immigration, Christ Jorgenson would have been a member of the Royal Life Guards at the Amalienberg palace in Copenhagen during the reign of Christian IX; Nicoline would have been seamstress to the Queen Consort Louise. This was one of the most glamorous and cosmopolitan courts of the era; Christian and Louise had secured political marriages for their children that made them in-laws to most of the royalty of Europe.
It would be interesting to know why the Jorgensons, quite middle-aged by the standards of the day, would leave that life for the hardships of farming in Nebraska. But they were hardly the only Danes in the area! Danish immigration to the U.S. swelled during the period 1870-1895, with most coming to farm in the upper Midwest and Great Plains. In 1872 Den Danske Pioneer--the oldest Danish-language newspaper still in print in the U.S.--began publication in Omaha, Nebraska, and was a cultural lifeline to the far-flung Danish settlers.(Pioneer) A search of WorldCat.org for Danish-language materials including the keyword "Nebraska," shows that another Danish paper, Stjernen, was founded in St. Paul, Nebraska in 1885. The Danish Lutheran Publishing House began operating in Blair, Nebraska in the 1890s, publishing Danish-language religious materials.
There were also publications back in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden about opportunities available in Nebraska, including one published in Copenhagen in 1872 with a title that translates as Concerning the State of Nebraska in the United States, North America, By Far the Best of the Western States for Emigrant Norwegians.(WorldCat, OCLC #468155788) Another title, published in Göteborg, Sweden in 1882, gives a clue to this intense interest: Advice and Information for Those Who Desire to Travel to the Union Pacific Railway Co. (Pacific Track) Land Tracts in the State of Nebraska.(WorldCat, OCLC #185268140) The transcontinental railroad had opened up cheap land, and made farming more profitable by providing transportation to markets.
Denmark's geographic proximity to Germany, Norway, and Sweden, and long history of involvement with these countries, made it possible, even likely, for Danes in the capital city to be familiar with dialects of all three countries. But even in the middle of Nebraska, the Jorgensons were surrounded by the languages of their native home. The Nebraska Staats-Anzeiger began in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1880, and during the following two decades half-a-dozen other German-language papers were begun in the state. Swedish-language publishing started early as well, with the newspaper Vårt nya hem (Our New Home) founded in Kearney, Nebraska in 1877. There were education institutions affiliated with each of these immigrant groups as well. Dana College was founded in Blair, Nebraska in 1884 by the Danish Evangelical Lutherans, and Luther College was founded in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1883 by the Swedish Lutherans (Augustana Synod).(Brown) Concordia College was founded by the German Lutherans (Missouri Synod) in Seward, Nebraska in 1894.(Concordia)
So young Elmer Leon Jorgenson grew up in an environment awash with Scandinavian and German languages, cultures, and music. His parents and older siblings were native speakers of Danish, and there were strong Danish, Swedish, and German cultural institutions all around. Small wonder that he was so open to the great hymn tradition of the Lutheran chorales, and that he showed such interest in translating the folk hymns he probably heard in his childhood.
Christ, Thou alone art my Lord, and no other
Shall, on the throne of my heart, rival Thee;
Stronger Thy love than the love of a mother,
Deeper Thy peace than the depths of the sea.
The wideness and inclusiveness of the gospel is a wonderful truth--that "God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."(John 3:16) God "is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."(2 Peter 3:9) The gospel is broad enough to forgive all the sins of the world, if the world would seek that forgiveness. But in another sense, the gospel is extraordinarily narrow. The same Jesus who said, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,"(Matthew 11:28) also said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."(John 14:6) That is an astonishing statement!
Imagine hearing someone say, on one of the many religious programs on television, "I know how a person can be saved and go to heaven, I am the only person who understands this correctly, and if you want to go to heaven, you must listen only to me." Our skepticism would be aroused immediately, and we would suspect the person of being either a charlatan or a dangerous fanatic. It would be preposterously arrogant for a person to claim to be the only conduit of truth on the subject. But Jesus said exactly that, because He alone can take the third option. As the Son of God, He claimed to be the exclusive way to the Father, and He absolutely meant it. The gospel is wide enough to save the world, but it is also so narrow that access to it comes down to one Man. This is the central theme of this hymn--there are certain things to be found in Christ alone.
The first stanza emphasizes the exclusive nature of Christ's lordship over our lives. The exclusivity of God is an outstanding theme of the Old Testament, when belief in a single God was out of the mainstream of human beliefs. Psalm 83:18 asserts that, "You alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth." Closely tied to this exclusive sovereignty was the understanding of God as the sole Creator and Sustainer of the physical universe: "You are the LORD, You alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and You preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you."(Nehemiah 9:6) And since God created all things, He is the Lord over all peoples, as Hezekiah expressed in his magnificent prayer: "O LORD, the God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, You are the God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; You have made heaven and earth."(2 Kings 19:15)
The same exclusive authority is inherent in His Son, "our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."(Jude 4) "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him."(1 John 4:9) He is the "only begotten" Son, monogenes, the only one of His kind. As the unique Son of the Father, He carried those attributes that are present only in God. When a man called Him "good," Jesus reminded him, "No one is good except God alone."(Mark 10:18) If we accept the perfect goodness of Jesus, we must also accept His perfect authority that comes from being Deity. He exercised the privilege of moral judgment and mercy that is unique to a sinless God, causing His enemies to say, "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"(Mark 2:7) They were more right than they knew!
The exclusive authority of Christ was made especially manifest in His Transfiguration. After witnessing a greater portion of His glory revealed, the disciples saw Him speaking with Moses and Elijah--the great represenatatives of the Law and the Prophets. But then the voice spoke from heaven telling the disciples to listen to the Son above and beyond these ancient worthies; Moses and Elijah disappeared and "Jesus was found alone."(Luke 9:36)
In the second half of this first stanza, the unknown author uses an uncommon metaphor in which Deity is compared to a mother; but there is good precedent for this metaphor in Scripture. Here is how God described to Isaiah the coming restoration of Jerusalem:
For thus says the LORD: "Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem."(Isaiah 66:12-13)In one sense the mother is Jerusalem--God will "extend peace to her," and the returning exiles "shall be carried upon her hip." But in the next verse, God is comparing His comforting of the people to a mother comforting her child. The images used here--a mother nursing a child, carrying the child on her hip, bouncing the child on her knees--are powerful. There is a sacredness, almost, to these scenes; for a little while, there is a world of just two people, mother and child. Christ showed this same tender love for humanity when He sorrowfully said of Jerusalem, "How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!"(Matthew 23:37) He wants to have a personal, loving, and nurturing relationship with each one of us, if only we will let Him.
Christ, Thou alone dost from bondage deliver,
Bringing me freedom and blessed release;
Crushing the heart then restoring forever,
Pouring into it the balm of Thy peace.
The Psalms frequently celebrate salvation, usually from a physical peril, and it is here that we first encounter the idea that God is the exclusive source of deliverance. David (who had frequent need for such help!) said, "For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation."(Psalm 62:1) Likewise Hezekiah, when he acknowledged God as Lord over all nations (2 Kings 19:15), was seeking deliverance from an invading army. But the bondage of sin is a far greater enemy--it has made the whole of humanity, at least all morally accountable persons, "slaves of sin"(Romans 6:17)--and it requires a far greater deliverer.
There are people among us whose job, day by day, is to run toward danger instead of away from it--firefighters, police officers, and the like--and we are right to recognize the heroism of those who put their lives at risk for others. But even when plunging into a desperate circumstance, these individuals cling to the natural human hope that somehow they will escape unharmed. Jesus had no such luxury; He knew from the beginning that, if the job were done at all, it would require Him to die a grueling and humiliating death. He went forward anyway, and "when He ascended on high He led a host of captives."(Ephesians 4:8)
That means of escape being provided, one would not expect the captives to ignore it or to demand another. I remember an incident off the Atlantic coast several years ago, when three men on a yacht were caught up in the edge of a hurricane and were close to being swamped. The U.S. Coast Guard sent a ship as close as they dared, then dispatched a helicopter with rescuers who lowered themselves down to the sinking ship. The pilot skillfully kept the helicopter in line with the pitching deck, for fear of the rescue jumpers being slammed into it, or of the cable getting entangled and putting the helicopter itself at risk. Finally they reached the deck and were able to strap the first of the yachtsmen into a harness to be pulled up to safety. Now, at that moment, can you imagine that man saying, "No thanks, that doesn't look very safe, or very comfortable, and I am afraid of heights. I'll wait here while you send a boat?"
But that is what too many have done. John 3:16, that beautiful verse, has a tragic corollary in the words that follow it:
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.God sent the very best, His only Son, the unique expression of the Father. If we do not accept His offer of salvation, we will not be saved, "for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."(Acts 4:12)
We do not often think of Jesus "crushing the heart," but that is exactly what He said would happen to those who did not receive Him:
"What then is this that is written: 'The Stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone'? Everyone who falls on that Stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him."(Luke 20:17-18)Jesus confronts us with ourselves, challenging us to see what we do not wish to see. He holds us to His own standard, and takes away our convenient comparisons with the other sinners around us. But realization of sinfulness is the first step toward forgiveness. David understood this well, as expressed in one of the great Penitential Psalms:
O LORD, rebuke me not in Your anger,But in another Penitential Psalm, David shows the outcome of this crushed heart full of godly sorrow:
Nor discipline me in Your wrath!
For Your arrows have sunk into me,
and Your hand has come down on me.
There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation;there is no health in my bones because of my sin.
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. . . .
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,The heart that is hardened will never receive the truth that will bring salvation; God knows that He must first break us so that He can remake us.
And in His word I hope;
My soul waits for the Lord
More than watchmen for the morning,
More than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
And with Him is plentiful redemption.
And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
Christ, Thou alone shalt be master and owner:
Thou art the Bridegroom and we are the bride;
Faithful to Thee, to obey and to honor,
Robed as a queen we shall reign at Thy side.
The third stanza begins with an image that has a hard, ugly history in human affairs. The enslavement of one person by another, or one people by another people, has gone on for as long as history records; and if it was less brutal and permanent in the 1st century world than it later was in the New World, it was still the case that a large number of people in Roman and Greek society were completely subject to the will of another. The gospel led a silent revolution against this institution, one heart at a time, with the central theme of equality in Christ--"Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all."(Colossians 3:11)
The image of masters and slaves was also subverted by its use to describe spiritual rather than physical bondage:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.And Paul repeatedly referred to himself as a "slave of Christ" (doulos Christon), as in Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:10, Philippians 1:1, Titus 1:1; though many translations soften it to "servant," it carries at least the meaning of "bondservant," that is, a servant bound to service. Paul, a well-educated Roman citizen, equated himself with the very lowest class of his society. He humbled himself, and lifted up his brothers and sisters among the slave class, recognizing that we are all very weak and small before the Almighty God.
I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.(Romans 6:16-19)
As part of the same image, Deity is represented as "Lord" and "Master" (despotes), the same term used for human slave-owners. This is also the root, obviously, of our word "despot." But this is the term used in Jude v.4, monos despotēs theos, "the only Lord God." It is used even more graphically in 2 Peter 2:1, describing Jesus as "the Master who bought [us]."
What do we learn from these stark words? First, we see the utterly desperate and helpless situation brought about by sin. Once in the shackles of sin, we are completely subject to its power, without even the Roman slave's possible recourse to earning our freedom. Next, we see that our release from sin is bought at a price that we could never pay ourselves; we are at the mercy of another Master's goodwill. And finally, we are reminded that we are still bound, and must subject ourselves to the new Master as completely as we did to the old one. At no point did we become our own, to go and do as we please; "For you were bought with a price, so glorify God in your body."(1 Corinthians 6:20)
Of course, this is just one of the ways that Scripture describes our relationship to Jesus; and the severity of the master-slave image, though Scriptural, is offset by the gentler words of John 15:15, "No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you."(John 15:15) This is the character of our Master, the only Master in all history who gave His life to save His slaves; and we can gladly submit our lives to Him!
We have seen Jesus elevate His followers from slaves to friends, but the the metaphor taken up in the second half of this stanza raises the faithful even higher. Now, a man may feel a little awkward to sing of himself as the "bride of Christ," but that is what we all must be!
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the Head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.The mystery is revealed a bit further in the later chapters of the Revelation:
This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.(Ephesians 5:23-27,32
Let us rejoice and exult and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure--for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.The elaborate figurative language of the Revelation shifts the metaphor somewhat, but the point is clear: the church, the redeemed body of the faithful, is the bride of Christ. As the man and woman are made "one flesh" in marriage,(Ephesians 5:31, Genesis 2:24) so the church and Christ are in one body. Christ is the Head of His body, the church; and the church is to submit to Him.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her Husband.
Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, "Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.(Revelation 19:7-8, 21:2,9-10)
Look again at the teaching of Ephesians 5 about marriage, and consider how it applies to the church as the bride of Christ: we are to be subject to Christ, we are to be "holy and without blemish,"(v.27) and we are to respect the authority of our divine Husband.(v.33) In turn, Christ is our Savior who loves us so much He sacrificed Himself for us.(v.25) He nourishes and cherishes us, because He loves us with a divine love.(v.28-29)
I suppose every man, since the world began, has wished the same for his wedding day; he longs to see a bride beaming with love for him, pure and chaste, without any thought of another. Let us commit ourselves to do all we can to see that Christ's church is just such a bride!
Christ, Thou alone into harbor shall guide me,
After the journey forever is o'er;
Safe in Thy glory, no shadow to hide Thee,
Sorrow and sighing shall end evermore.
David the Psalmist had a life with many dangers and hardships, and often betrayals; perhaps this is why his poetry is so expressive of his trust in God. No other had been so faithful to him: "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety."(Psalm 4:8) In Psalm 62, he spoke on this at greater length:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;The first disciples of Jesus did not come by this trust as easily. (And to be fair, David sometimes expressed doubt and frustration as well.) In Matthew 8:23-27, the physical presence of Christ was not enough to make them trust that they would get through the storm on the Sea of Galilee. In a later incident (Matthew 14:22-33) involving the disciples, a boat, the sea, and a storm, they were still amazed at Christ's command over the elements. But there were flashes of faith; Peter, on the latter occasion, took a few hesitant steps on the water before his faith and focus failed.
From Him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be greatly shaken.
How long will all of you attack a man to batter him,
Like a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
They only plan to thrust him down from his high position.
They take pleasure in falsehood.
They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
For my hope is from Him.
He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
My mighty Rock, my refuge is God.
And perhaps the best step of faith Peter took, next to his confession of Christ as the Son of God,(Matthew 16:16) was his frank statement after Christ's "hard teachings" in John 6. After much of the crowd had left and "followed Him no more," Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you want to go away as well?" But Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."(John 6:66-68)
As this final stanza of the hymn teaches, it is Christ alone who can direct us safely through life. Just as He took control of the boat on Galilee and stilled the storm, He can take control of our lives and bring us safely through our storms. Christ alone has the "words of eternal life" that will guide us home. He has been that way before, through both life and death, and can see His people through as well. This is why Paul could say, even under threat of execution, "The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom."(2 Timothy 4:18) Paul's physical fate was uncertain, but his soul was secure. And when, by God's grace, we are there with Paul and all of the saved, "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."(Revelation 21:4)
About the music:
Elmer Jorgenson, though profoundly influential on the Churches of Christ as an editor, was not a prolific songwriter himself. Where Lloyd O. Sanderson, editor of the Gospel Advocate hymnals, contributed a large number of songs that are still widely sung, Jorgenson's are few and far between. Jorgenson's translations and arrangements, however, are tastefully done and show the editor's keen eye for good church music. In addition to "Christ, Thou Alone" and "Can You Count the Stars?," already mentioned, he also arranged the lovely "Thou art Merciful, O Father," an adaptation of the Andante theme from Mozart's A major piano sonata (K.331). Like "Christ, Thou Alone," this first appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church.
Showing a modesty uncharacteristic of many other hymnal editors, Jorgenson actually cut some of his own songs from the 1921 to the 1930 edition, including "Christ, Thou Alone" and "Thou Art Merciful, O Father." They might have gone missing for good, had they not been reinserted in the 1975 supplement to Great Songs of the Church, No. 2, when the hymnal was taken up by the Abilene Christian University Press.
I have been unable to trace a source for the melody of "Christ, Thou Alone," but in the course of looking I came across an online version of the 1819 Swedish Psalm-Boken that gives some idea of the singing of these early settlers. This particular edition was published in 1892 in Chicago. The first section, the Psalm-Bok proper, is all sturdy old psalm-tunes and chorales. (An interesting feature of the book is that the pages are cut in half horizontally, with music on the top half and text on the lower half, so the singer could conviently match together any tune and text of a compatible meter.) But on page 415, a new section begins--the Kör-Sånger, or Choir Singer. On the lower halves of the pages following, there are several sprightly works appropriate for amateur choirs. The music of "Christ, Thou Alone" seems right at home among these.
McCann, Forrest. "A History of Great Songs of the Church." Restoration Quarterly 38/4 (1996), 219-228. http://www.acu.edu/sponsored/restoration_quarterly/documents/RQ_38.4_(McCann).pdf
Den Danske Pioneer/The Danish Pioneer. http://www.dendanskepioneer.com/english/index.html
Brown, Ray C. "List of Colleges and Universities that have Closed, Merged, or Changed their Names." http://www2.westminster-mo.edu/wc_users/homepages/staff/brownr/ClosedCollegeIndex.htm
Concordia University web site. http://www.cune.edu/