Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Come, Thou Almighty King

Praise for the Lord #100

Words: Anonymous, c. 1757
Music: Felice di Giardini, 1769

The authorship of this hymn has been long debated, with little new evidence coming to light. The two men most often connected with it are Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, based on the following circumstantial evidence. The first known publication of this text was in a short pamphlet published sometime prior to 1757. Unfortunately the only known copies of this pamphlet have no title page, and thus give no positive attribution of the authorship of "Come, Thou Almighty King." Even the date is conjecture, based on the hymnals into which it was bound. The pamphlet contains only one other hymn, "Jesus, Let Thy Pitying Eye," which is definitely by Charles Wesley. This suggests that Wesley might have been the author of both, though the hymn never appears in any of Wesley's publications.

All of the known copies of this pamphlet are held by the British Museum, and are found bound into the backs of hymnals edited by George Whitefield, the prominent "Calvinist Methodist" minister. Whitefield's Collection of Hymns for Social Worship was the first hymnal to incorporate the text into the body of the work.( Because of this association, Whitefield is sometimes given attribution, but this is even less likely than Wesley's authorship; Whitefield was an editor and arranger, but not a writer of original hymns. He may have selected and arranged the stanzas, however, from a longer hymn now lost to us.

The author of this hymn may have had reason to remain anonymous; the text is an obvious play on the British anthem, "God Save the King," and is found set to that tune in early sources.(Nutter, 2) The implication that we ought to "render unto God what is God's,"(Matthew 22:21) instead of heaping our praise and professions of loyalty upon mere mortals, is well taken. But given the Methodists' history of challenging the positions of the established Church of England, it could also have been taken as a subversion of the King's authority as earthly head of the church.

Stanza 1:
Come, Thou almighty King,
Help us Thy name to sing, help us to praise!
Father all-glorious, o’er all victorious,
Come and reign over us, Ancient of Days!

For sake of comparison, the first stanza of "God Save the King," as found in the Gentleman's Magazine, 15 October 1745.(Wikimedia Commons)

God save great George, our king,
Long live our noble king, God save the king.
Send him victorious, happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us, God save the king.

In modern times some have called into question the imagery of God as King, because of the negative consequences that kind of absolute authority has had in human hands. But just as we must remember that God as Father is a perfect Father, unlike the imperfect fathers of this world, so we also must remember that God is a perfect King, better than the wisest and most benevolent king who ever ruled on this earth. Beyond that, we must lay aside our natural objection to anyone holding such absolute power; though we rightly object to a fellow human being having such authority, if God is the Creator and Sustainer of this universe, then all such authority belongs to Him by nature.

The Psalms frequently present this metaphor for God's authority over His creation. God is represented as a King who is invincible in face of all mere human threats: "Who is this King of Glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!"(Psalm 24:8) He is invincible in the face of any earthly disaster--"the LORD sits enthroned over the flood"--and unlike human monarchs, God's good reign is everlasting: "The LORD sits enthroned as King forever."(Psalm 29:10) For this reason our King is deserving of utmost respect and honor. "For the LORD, the Most High, is to be feared, a great King over all the earth. . . Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!"(Psalm 47:2,6)

But God's power and authority are not the only aspects of His divine reign that are described in the Psalms. In Psalm 74:12 we read, "God my King is from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth." The Sovereign Lord is the source of help and comfort to His people, as David said in Psalm 5:2, "Give attention to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to You do I pray."

The same picture of God as the Great King is continued in the New Testament: "To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen."(1 Timothy 1:17) But where the supreme moral authority of God was viewed in an earthly context in the Psalms, Jesus portrays the eternal nature of God as the Sovereign Judge: "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."(Matthew 25:34)

Sadly, many reject the lordship of God when it comes to their own lives. "His invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,"(Romans 1:20) but some "did not like to retain God in their knowledge."(Romans 1:28) In 1 Samuel 8, the great prophet-judge was distressed that the people of Israel demanded an earthly king in his place; but God told him, "they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them."(1 Samuel 8:7) An echo of this was heard centuries later when a crowd of Israelites cried out, "We have no king but Caesar."(John 19:15) An echo of this is heard still today, whenever some human authority exalts itself as supreme--whether over fellow humanity, or over one's own self--and rejects the authority of God who made us all.

The original text had another stanza next, still found in some hymnals, but not used in the hymnals common to the Churches of Christ in the United States:

Jesus, our Lord, arise,
Scatter our enemies, and make them fall;
Let Thine almighty aid our sure defense be made,
Our souls on Thee be stayed; Lord, hear our call.

This is a reworking of the second stanza of "God Save the King," even more blatant than the first. The early version of the British anthem reads:

O Lord our God arise,
Scatter his enemies, and make them fall;
Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks,
On him our hopes we fix, O save us all!

The hymn seems to take the anthem to task in this stanza, insisting that God alone is worthy of such trust. It is interesting to note that the last line of this stanza in the royal anthem has evolved over the years to "On Thee our hopes we fix," an understandable emendation in reaction to such criticism. The language of this stanza (and of the corresponding stanza in the anthem) is based on Numbers 10:35, which records the invocation given whenever the Israelites began a new leg of their journeys during the Exodus: "And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, 'Arise, O LORD, and let Your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate You flee before You.'"

This stanza of the hymn has decreased in usage, however, perhaps in part because of the difficult rhyme between "arise" and "enemies." This is probably a case, however, where changing accents of English have made obtuse what at one time might have been a reasonable rhyme. (No doubt some accents of English could succeed in making this rhyme even today, as "aroise" and "enemoies.")

Stanza 2:
Come, Thou Incarnate Word,
Gird on Thy mighty sword, our prayer attend!
Come, and Thy people bless, and give Thy Word success,
Spirit of Holiness, on us descend!

This stanza, the second in our arrangement, addresses praise to God the Son. "Incarnate Word" is simply an expression of John 1:14, "And the Word became flesh." It is easy to say, and hard to grasp. Many volumes have been written--and not a few doctrinal battles fought--over how the infinite God could become also fully human. But if we look to the "what" rather than the "how," it is abundantly clear how thankful we must be that He did!
For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, He has now reconciled in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him.(Colossians 1:19-22)
Because of this Perfect Man who took our sins to the cross, we can approach God with confidence that Jesus will "our prayer attend." We have no standing with God on our own; what can a finite mortal creature of a few years existence say before the Eternal Creator? As Job said, "How then can I answer him, choosing my words with him?"(Job 9:14) But in Jesus we have "an Advocate with the Father,"(1 John 2:1) who has walked in our shoes, whom we can understand as one of us.
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh, and since we have a great Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.(Hebrews 10:19-22)
The closing part of this stanza refers to the "Spirit of Holiness," an expression found in Romans 1:4 that must in context refer to the Holy Spirit rather than Christ. Whether this transition in mid-stanza was intended or not, it serves the hymn well in our current abbreviated version, giving homage to each member of the Godhead.

This does not refer necessarily to a charismatic experience; the "baptism of the Spirit" experienced by the apostles at Pentecost was exceptional enough that a similar outpouring on Cornelius and his household evoked comparison as an equally significant and momentous event. But we are all called to be "filled with the Spirit."(Ephesians 5:18) "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."(Romans 5:5) We must be "led by the Spirit,"(Romans 8:14) "strengthened with power through His Spirit in [the] inner being."(Ephesians 3:16) Our great hope is to bear the "fruit of the Spirit" in our lives.(Galatians 5:22) Since we know the Spirit "intercedes for us" in prayer,(Romans 8:26) and that we "worship by the Spirit of God,"(Philippians 3:3) it is natural that we appeal to the Spirit of God in our approach to worship.

There was originally an entire stanza directed to the Holy Spirit; this is not used in most of the hymnals of the Churches of Christ, at least in the United States, with the exception of the publications of Will Slater:

Come, holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear in this glad hour.
Thou who almighty art, now rule in every heart,
And ne’er from us depart, Spirit of power!

The idea of the Spirit bearing witness is most clearly seen in this beautiful passage in Romans:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.(Romans 8:15-17)
Stanza 3:
O Lord, our God, to Thee
The highest praises be, hence evermore!
Thy sovereign majesty may we in glory see,
And to eternity love and adore!

The hymn concludes with an outburst of praise to our God, with a prayer that we will be with Him in eternity. We strive to give our "highest praises," but understand that our best falls short. "With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high?"(Micah 6:6) Even the great temple of Solomon, the greatest work of Israel's most magnificent king, was rightly viewed as inadequate for the God for whom it was built. Solomon, in better, humbler days, said: "But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!"(2 Chronicles 6:18) But we offer to God what we can, humbly entreating His acceptance of our imperfect worship.

Someday it will be different, though, in the New Jerusalem;
"The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever."(Revelation 22:3-5)
Until that day, let us do our best on this earth to praise Him. When we truly lift up our hearts in selfless worship to Him, we are as close to heaven as we will come, until that great day arrives.

Excursus: Yes, Robert, We Do Believe in the Trinity

Here I am referring to my nephew-by-marriage, who came to the Church of Christ as an adult just a few years ago, having grown up in another religious group. He once asked me about the altered line of Reginald Heber's "Holy, Holy, Holy," which originally ran "God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity," but among Churches of Christ (at least in the U.S.) is usually sung as "God over all, and blest eternally." In that particular case, it seems to have been an accident that some of our hymnals picked up an altered text from a Unitarian hymnal; one of our major hymnal traditions, the Gospel Advocate Christian Hymns series, always used the original lyrics.

But there is another instance of this sort of thing in "Come, Thou Almighty King." The original opening lines of the final stanza were:

To Thee, great One in Three,
Eternal praises be, hence, evermore.

The change to the second line might just be to avoid using "eternal" and "eternity" in the same stanza; I don't see what objection anyone might have had to the original. But the first line is another matter!

First, it should be remembered that the Churches of Christ in this country have a musical tradition dominated by the gospel style, and that our knowledge of the classical hymns has largely been through a process of reintroduction, except for a few old war-horses such as "Amazing Grace." Under these circumstances, it would be easy for congregations to sing a Unitarian-friendly alteration without realizing it had ever been changed. That is probably what happened with "Holy, Holy, Holy;" we simply fell into the use of one or the other according to the choice of an editor at some point in the past.

This is not to say that there has never been controversy among us on the subject of the Trinity. In the 19th century, two of the most prominent leaders of the Restoration Movement, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, were sometimes at odds over this topic. Stone openly questioned the concept of the Trinity, and though neither man adopted a Unitarian view, both were critical of what they saw as dogmatism in the traditional Trinitarian explanations.(Blowers, 356) Campbell may have best summed up the point of view held by most in the Churches of Christ (even today) about the nature of the Godhead: "Language fails and thought cannot reach."(Blowers, 357) The traditional approach, then, has been to carefully examine what Scripture says, then try to say that and no more--even if it leaves some questions unresolved. (This is my reading of Roy Lanier Sr.'s classic book The Timeless Trinity.) If God of the Bible exists at all, the very nature of what He would have to be sets Him beyond human experience; why should we be surprised if there are things about Him we cannot comprehend?

I don't think most members of the Churches of Christ would object to the original line "God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity" in Heber's "Holy, Holy, Holy," or to "Great One in Three" in this hymn; but this principle of "calling Bible things by Bible names" may have made editors hesitant about using texts with this terminology. The expressions "Trinity," "Three in One," and "One in Three" are not found per se in Scripture, and have a long history of controversy in Christian thought. Though many of us use them ourselves as ways to describe what we understand of God, there may have been an underlying reluctance to employ these in our common language of worship. It may be the same sort of editorial caution that is seen in songs about the Holy Spirit, where there has been a tendency to avoid the subject rather than take a chance of raising objections.

In the case of "Come, Thou Almighty King," there is a very mixed message from the hymnal editors. The Christian Hymns series, edited by Lloyd O. Sanderson for the Gospel Advocate, never included this hymn at all. Great Songs of the Church, edited by Elmer Jorgenson, uses the altered version of this stanza, and hymnals from Howard Publishing (Songs of the Church, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Songs of Faith and Praise) followed Jorgenson in this usage. Tillit Teddlie's Great Christian Hymnal, which sometimes varies from the others in text alterations, has the same non-Trinitarian-specific version. But at least two of Will Slater's publications--The Church Hymnal (1938) and Hymns of Praise and Devotion (1952)--have the original "One in Three" text. The latter of these also includes the "Come, Holy Comforter" stanza.

After looking at every instance available with full text through, I can only offer a few observations to add to our understanding of this alteration. First, this is not the usual alteration of the text found in Unitarian Hymnals, which have usually read, "Never from us depart / Rule Thou in every heart" as far back as the Springfield Collection of 1835. As an alternative, some Unitarian hymnals (for example, Longfellow's Book of Hymns for Public and Private Devotion, 1848) drop the final stanza with its explicit Trinity reference. Hymnals by other non-Trinitarian groups (Christian Scientist, Adventist) make other alterations to remove this reference.

It is worth noting as well that a fair number of hymnals from a variety of religious groups drop the final stanza, using only the stanzas beginning "Come, Thou Almighty King," "Come, Thou Incarnate Word," and "Come, Holy Comforter." There are also frequent variations in the opening line of the final stanza--sometimes it is the original "To Thee, Great One in Three," but sometimes "To the Great One in Three." Some hymnals even reverse the expression, using "Thrice-blessed Three in One! / On earth Thy will be done." Perhaps there is a bit of awkwardness in the original wording that has spawned so many different fixes, completely without reference to the doctrinal content.

I have not found the specific alteration known among the Churches of Christ in any source outside of the churches of the Restoration Movement. The earliest instance I have found of this reading is in the Convention Hymnal edited by J. H. Garrison for the International Centennial Celebration and Conventions of the Disciples of Christ (1909). The same text variant is found in The King of Kings (Indianapolis; St. Louis: Christian Board of Publication, 1915). The earliest instance of this hymn I have found in a hymnal produced among the Churches of Christ is in the 1930 edition of Elmer L. Jorgenson's Great Songs of the Church. Jorgenson uses the same text variant found in the Disciples publications, and it is likely through his hymnal's influence that it became the common form of this text among Churches of Christ in the United States.

Does this usage imply anything about the Trinitarian vs. Unitarian issue? Jorgenson's 1953 article on the opening paragraphs of John's gospel makes it clear that he believed in distinct but equally divine Persons within one Godhead.(Word and Work) Why would he not have used the original Trinitarian version of this hymn's final stanza? With the breadth of his experience and training, one would expect that he had encountered it. The occurrence of this particular variant in a few earlier Disciples/Christian Churches publications suggests that Jorgenson followed an existing usage within the Restoration Movement.

But in searching through the likely 19th-century sources (publications from the Fillmore company, Standard Publishing, etc.) and the Enos J. Dowling Collection of earlier Restoration Movement hymnals, I am mostly struck by the complete absence of this hymn. It was in use in North America within a few years of its composition, appearing as early as 1761(?) in the Urania tune-book, and was found (with its original text) in hymnals of the Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and of course the Methodists. Why did the churches of the Restoration Movement not adopt this hymn? Was it just accidental, or a deliberate omission? The question awaits further evidence.

About the music:

This tune, usually known as ITALIAN HYMN, apparently was written specifically for this text by the once-popular Italian composer and conductor, Felice di Giardini. How a composer best known for operas and concertos came to write hymn tunes is an interesting story, and involves two important movers and shakers in early Methodist hymnody--Martin Madan and the Lady Bingley. For more about the history of this excellent tune, please see my previous post on Christ for the World We Sing.


"Come, Thou Almighty King."

Nutter, Charles S., and Tillet, Wilbur F. The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church: An Annotated Edition of the Methodist Hymnal. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1911.

"God save our lord the king." Wikimedia Commons.

Garrison, J. H. Convention Hymnal for the International Centennial Celebration and Conventions of the Disciples of Christ. 1909

Jorgenson, Elmer L. "John's prologue." Word and Work 47/4 (April 1953), p. 77-79.

Blowers, Paul M. "God, Doctrine of." The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, 356-359.

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