death defying

James Edmeston wrote the hymn Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us in 1821. His original second verse, addressing Jesus, includes:

Lone and dreary, faint and weary,
Through the desert thou didst go

Many Christians are hesitant to think, talk, write or sing about Jesus as in any way limited, even as they talk about him being fully human (and fully divine). Some modern hymn books have changed that to:

Self-denying, death defying,
Thou to Calvary didst go

but death defying just gives the wrong impression. Google Ngrams reports death(-)defying stunts, feat(s), leap(s), act(s), death(?), courage, spirit and notes(?). Death-defying is a very 20th-century concept, and was almost unknown before then. 

(Google’s first suggestion of a video was from the Queen’s 90th birthday service of thanksgiving (2016), at which this second version was sung.)

A third version is:

Yet unfearing, persevering,
To thy passion thou didst go

which sounds the most reasonable. Note that the original words refer to Jesus’s 40 days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness, while the altered words refer to his crucifixion and death. The last lines of versions 2 and 3 are probably interchangeable. (Note also that the first line each time rhymes within itself, while the second line rhymes with lines earlier in the verse. The overall rhyming scheme is A B A B cc B.)

Many hymns are rendered problematic to some degree by changes of meaning, grammar, theology, sociology or taste. The question is whether we stop singing them, stick with the original words at the risk of people misunderstanding them, or change them; if so, by whom and how.


2 thoughts on “death defying

  1. I’m not familiar with this particular hymn, as we’ve never sung or seen it in any of the US Methodist churches I’ve been in. But it seems to me that rather than change a given verse to illustrate a different episode in Jesus’ life, why not just add new verses? Then a given congregation can choose which verses to sing. For example, the UMH’s traditional lead-off hymn, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” has the fifth verse marked “May be omitted” presumably because it refers to the “deaf”, “dumb”, “blind” and “lame”.


    • The three verses are addressed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not telling the life of Jesus (nb addressed *to* Jesus – as if we have to tell him what he did during his earthly life).
      It is very common in Anglican/Episcopalian hymnbooks.


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