Posted by: rcottrill | June 15, 2012

Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?

Words: Thomas Shepherd (b. _____, 1665; d. Jan. 29, 1739)
Music: Maitland, by George Nelson Allen (b. Sept. 7, 1812; d. Dec. 9, 1877)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: This is a hymn with a very mixed (and in some parts an uncertain) origin. We know that Thomas Shepherd wrote a version of CH-1, but the rest is not likely his work. Stanzas CH-2 to 5 have been variously credited: to an anonymous author, to George Allen the composer of the tune, to clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, or to his brother Charles. (Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the beautiful hymn Still, Still with Thee, and the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was their sister.) Of the five stanzas given in the Cyber Hymnal, most hymn books now omit CH-2.

The first stanza was published in 1693, by Thomas Shepherd. The Petersens, in their volume The Complete Book of Hymns, suggest he wrote it to go with a sermon about Peter. I’ve seen no evidence of that elsewhere, but his original beginning of the hymn did deal with “Simon,” not Jesus. Was he thinking of the tradition that Peter was crucified? The lines of verse were included in a book called Penitential Cries. There Shepherd wrote:

Shall Simon bear the cross alone,
And other saints be free?
Each saint of Thine shall find his own,
And there is one for me.

In The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church, by Nutter and Tillett (published in 1911), the opening line of Shepherd’s original is given as: “Must Simon bear Thy cross alone.” That puts things in quite a different light. If the word “Thy” is authentic, it would seem to be a reference to Simon of Cyrene, whom the Romans “compelled” (forced) to carry the cross of Jesus partway to Calvary (Mk. 15:21).

This may simply be a typographical error in Nutter and Tillett’s published work. But if not, Simon of Cyrene certainly doesn’t provide an example of voluntary cross bearing! Further, there is a vast difference between the cross of Christ and all others. Though Simon was conscripted by the Romans to assist the Lord along the way, no one could do what Jesus did for us.

The Lord Jesus told His followers to take up “your cross” (Matt. 16:24; Mk. 8:34; Lk. 9:23). It was never, “Take up My cross.” The cross of Christ pertains to our redemption, and He alone can be the world’s Redeemer (Eph. 1:7; I Pet. 1:18-19). In the early church, the cross believers had to bear may have been literal. But Christ’s statements are also meant as a metaphor or symbol of our identification with Him and with the cause of the gospel, a picture of self sacrifice and complete surrender to God’s will.

It’s not known what later editor amended the first stanza to its present form, but it better suggests this important distinction.

CH-1) Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
And there’s a cross for me.

CH-3) The consecrated cross I’ll bear
Till death shall set me free;
And then go home my crown to wear,
For there’s a crown for me.

Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn. 16:33). The solemn fact was reiterated by the Apostle Paul: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). As Isaac Watts put it, “Is this vile world a friend to grace?” The answer is no. And around the same time William Penn wrote:

No pain, no palm;
No thorns, no throne;
No gall, no glory;
No cross, no crown.

1) Do you think we in North America truly understand the concept of cross bearing? If not, why not?

2) How is this concept related to Romans 12:1?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. I noted in one of Charles Spurgeon’s writings that he substitutes “church” for world. Has anyone else seen this, and if so, where?

    • I know of no reference by Spurgeon to this hymn, and Our Own Hymn Book, that he published for use at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, does not contain the song among its over 1,000 selections.

      I did a check of several dozen hymn books, going back 150 years or so. Most have the opening couplet as it is now, with three exceptions. In 1859, one book has, “Shall Simon bear the cross alone, / And all the world go free.” A book from 1861 has, “And all His saints go free” for the second line. And a book from 1891 has, “And all mankind go free.”

      If the original was, “Must Simon bear Thy cross alone, as discussed in my original article, it does work as a metaphor for identification with Christ, except that we do not bear Jesus’ cross, only our own. As to the amended, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone,” as we know from Scripture, the Lord did not bear His cross. Simon did–and not voluntarily.

      As to the second line, whoever it was that suggested “church” be substituted for “world,” did not, in my view, particularly strengthen the lyric. It is not the church that is told to bear its cross; it’s individuals. The use of the word “saints” in one version is closer perhaps.

      But the word “world” is fine. I think it’s an intentional hyperbole. It’s similar, in a sense, to the words of the Lord Jesus, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mk. 8:36). No one is able to gain the whole world and all its riches. The extreme phrase is used to emphasize the value of one’s eternal soul.

      Is all of this being a trifle picky? Possibly. But I do think it’s important to pay attention to what we’re singing in the house of God. Hymn-sing must be more than a mindless ritual. We should be teaching one another, and praising the Lord by it (Col. 3:16). This is a hymn about sacrifice and reward. Its spirit is right, even though the truth is not expressed in the best way in the opening lines.


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