Text: Thomas Kelly (1769-1855)
Music: 17th century German hymn
Tune name: BRESLAU
Born in Dublin and educated at Trinity College, Dublin, Thomas Kelly intended to go into the law. A deep spiritual yearning took him in another direction. Having taken Holy Orders in 1792, Kelly became an intense and earnest preacher in churches in Dublin, so much so that his Archbishop inhibited from preaching in the city.
Kelly found another mode of expression of his deep piety in hymn writing. He is said to have written 765 hymns, three of which are in our Hymnal, including the triumphant Ascension hymn “The head that once was crown with thorns” (# 106). In a book of hymns published in Kelly’s centenary year, the editor noted:
Mr. Kelly was a man of great and varied learning, skilled in the Oriental tongues, and an excellent Bible critic. He was possessed also of musical talent, and composed and published a work [i.e., a collection of hymns that went through numerous editions] that was received with favour, consisting of music adapted to every form of metre in his hymn-book. Naturally of an amiable disposition and thorough in his Christian piety, Mr. Kelly became the friend of good men, and the advocate of every worthy, benevolent, and religious cause. He was admired alike for his zeal and his humility; and his liberality found ample scope in Ireland, especially during the year of famine.”
This hymn was first published in 1815, with the caption: “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross.”
1. We sing the praise of him who died,
of him who died upon the cross;
the sinner’s hope let men deride,
for this we count the world but loss.
2. Inscribed upon the cross we see
in shining letters, God is love;
he bears our sins upon the tree;
he brings us mercy from above.
3. The cross! It takes our guilt away:
it holds the fainting spirit up;
it cheers with hope the gloomy day,
and sweetens every bitter cup.
4. It makes the coward spirit brave,
and nerves the feeble arm for fight;
it takes its terror from the grave,
and gilds the bed of death with light.
5. The balm of life, the cure of woe,
the measure and the pledge of love,
the sinner’s refuge here below,
the angels’ theme in heaven above.
First published in 1625 in Leipzig, BRESLAU may be based on a mid-15th century predecessor. It is also used as an alternate tune for “Creator of the stars of night” (#6). In our parish, we prefer to sing the plainchant tune with that hymn. BRESLAU has a sturdy and unadorned confidence, suitable for meditation upon the cross (if not for conveying wonder at the Incarnation).
Below is Andrew Remillard’s rendition of this hymn on piano.
Another tune to which this tune is sung (though not one in our Hymnal) is BOW BRICKHILL, composed by Sydney H. Nicholson (1875-1947). The hymn is sung to that tune in the recording below from the Norwich Cathedral Choir, conducted by Neil Taylor, with Simon Johnson at the organ.