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HISTORY OF HYMNS: Wesley not author of ‘Thou Almighty King’ C. Michael Hawn, Jun 1, 2012
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
“Come, Thou Almighty King” Anonymous author UM Hymnal, No. 61
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!
This well-known hymn, now of uncertain authorship, was attributed to Charles Wesley in Methodist hymnals published in the United States until 1905.
“Come, Thou Almighty King” appeared in a tract with a Wesley hymn, “Jesus, Let Thy Pitying Eye,” a combination that led to the false assumption of Wesley’s authorship. Perkins School of Theology professor, Fred D. Gealy, conducting research for the 1966 Methodist Hymnal, found that the hymn appeared as early as 1755 in the 22nd edition of George Whitfield’s Collection of Hymns for Social Worship.
The poetic meter of this hymn (664.666.4), however, was not one used by Charles Wesley in any of his hymns. This is the same meter used for the famous British national hymn, “God Save the King,” sung on this side of the Atlantic to the tune called AMERICA (“My Country, ’Tis of Thee”).
Though widely considered the oldest text in this unusual meter, for obvious reasons it could not be sung in England to the same tune as the British national hymn. Martin Madan, in his 1769 Collection of Psalm-Tunes never published before, paired “Come, Thou Almighty King” to the tune ITALIAN HYMN, written for the text by Felice de Giardini. Though British Methodists have never included this hymn in their hymnals, American Methodists have had access to it since 1814.
This is a classic Trinitarian hymn full of biblical metaphors for deity, starting in the first stanza: “King,” “Father” and “Ancient of Days” (Daniel 7:9, 13, 22). In stanza two the second person of the Trinity is represented by the “incarnate Word” (John 1:1; I John 5:7). The third person of the Trinity has several names: “Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:4), “holy Comforter,” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7) and “Spirit of Power.” The Trinity itself is symbolized by “the great One in Three.”
I found the reference in stanza two to the “incarnate Word” who “gird[s] on thy mighty sword” to be curious since this certainly is not the biblical image presented of the Word in John 1:1 and 1 John 5:7. After searching the King James Version upon which this hymn is based, I decided that this must be an apocalyptic reference from Revelation 19:13-15: “And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” While certainly not the most common or, I would think, the most preferred image of God the Word, it appears that it is biblical.
In addition to the second stanza that refers to the second person of the Trinity as the “incarnate Word,” a more explicit Christological stanza is omitted from most hymnals:
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.
The bellicose imagery of this stanza would seem to make it less desirable for use in worship.
Hymnologist Albert Bailey characterizes the hymn in this manner: “The hymn is a prayer for the presence of Christ to inspire a congregation in the hour of worship. God is addressed under three forms: as Father, the timeless “Ancient of Days” whose function is to rule (stanza 1); as Incarnate Word, the spirit of holiness whose function is to bless and conquer (stanza 2); as Comforter, the indwelling source of joy and power (stanza 3); and finally as the mystic combination, the Holy Trinity, in whose presence we shall spend an eternity of love and adoration (stanza 4).”
Many of the Trinitarian hymns written in the last half of the 20th century attempt to use non-gender images. Though some masculine images are included in relation to God, this 18th-century text proves that many biblical images for the persons of the Trinity found in the King James Version were genderless.
The final stanza is a doxology. A Christian doxology usually includes a reference to the Trinity and its eternal nature. This stanza may also be used successfully on its own as a doxology.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.