The authorship of some hymns remains shrouded in mystery.
This 18th-century hymn has remained in use, though in an adapted form, to the current day even though we have never been certain of its origins.
Hymnal compilers during the 18th and 19th centuries often made it difficult to ascribe authorship. Most collections from this era were text-only publications with little or no attribution or, in some cases, even misleading or inaccurate information.
This may seem strange from our perspective in the 21st century, when there are significant legal ramifications around copyright. However, centuries ago it was common for a lesser known author or composer to inscribe the name of a better-known artist to a work so that it would receive more recognition and sell more copies. There were few, if any, legal obligations to attribute correct authorship and any money that was made usually went to the compiler and publisher of a collection rather than to the various authors or composers represented in the volume.
Changes to the original manuscript were quite common, even to the point of the adapter receiving more credit than the original author. Considerable research is needed at times to discover the original text and, even should this be available, authorship still may be vague.
Such is the case with this week’s hymn, “Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus.”
UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton Young, cites the work of Methodist hymnologist Fred D. Gealy on the origins of this hymn:
“The hymn first appeared in two stanzas in A Collection of Hymns Addressed to the Holy, Holy, Triune God, in the Person of Christ Jesus, Our Mediator and Advocate, 1757. . . . When the hymn next appeared, in [Martin] Madan’s Collection of Psalms and Hymns, 1760, it was expanded to four stanzas.
If you became lost somewhere in that description, you are normal! A hymn looks so simple on the page as we sing it in church, yet what appears in the hymnal may represent decades or even centuries of research and adaptation before it reaches us. Dr. Young concludes, “There is no evidence that [John] Blakewell wrote the original hymn, nor is the reviser known.”
However, it is possible to connect a name with the hymn with some certainty because Augustus M. Toplady, author of “Rock of Ages, cleft for me” (UM Hymnal, No. 361), included it in his Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Worship (1776), and altered the hymn to fit his Calvinist perspective, adding a fifth stanza not known before this time.
Dr. Young notes that it was this version from 1776 that appeared in Methodist hymnals until the hymnal published in 1966, in which the 1760 version by Martin Madan was restored with some minor alterations.
We can establish a Wesleyan connection with this hymn through the compilers. Concerning those attributed as authors of this hymn, Blakewell (1721-1819) was an evangelist associated with the work of the Wesleys in London. Madan (1726-1790) was trained as a barrister but was converted through a sermon by John Wesley, subsequently ordained, and served as a chaplain to London Lock Hospital, an institution for women suffering from venereal diseases.
Let us take a few moments to explore what the hymn actually says. The first stanza praises the One who suffered for us and “didst free salvation bring.” This One was a “universal Savior” through whom “we find favor” and “life.” This text does not reflect an exclusive Calvinist view, but reads somewhat like Charles Wesley who also made liberal use of the words “free” and “universal.”
In stanza two this theme continues. Using the early Christian term, “Paschal Lamb,” we find that “full atonement [has been] made.” The “gate of heaven” is opened to all and there does not appear to be any restriction on who may enter as “reconciled are we with God” is an open-ended claim.
Stanza three places Jesus on the “throne . . . in glory” where he is adored by “all the heavenly hosts . . . at thy Father’s side.” He is there as our intercessor and is preparing a place for us.
The final, triumphal stanza begins with “Worship, honor, power, and blessing,” echoing Revelation 4:11 and 5:12-13.
As Dr. Young points out, the themes of salvation and atonement found throughout this hymn are derived from Romans 5:8-12 and Hebrews 8:1, 7:25.
“Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus”
Attributed to John Blakewell and Martin Madan
UM Hymnal, No. 325
Hail, thou once despised Jesus!
Hail, thou Galilean King!
Thou didst suffer to release us;
thou didst free salvation bring.
Hail, thou universal Savior,
who hast borne out sin and shame!
By thy merits we find favor;
life is given through thy name.
Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.