Lead On, O King Eternal

Scripture References

Confessions and Statements of Faith References

Further Reflections on Confessions and Statements of Faith References

The confessions of the Reformed Faith are rich in references to the Kingship of Christ. Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Days 18 and 19, Questions and Answers 46-52 reflect on the phrase from the Apostles’ Creed: “He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God.”
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 19, Question and Answer 50 professes that “he is head of the church, (and) the one through whom the Father rules all things.”
Our World Belongs to God, paragraph 27 professes that “all authority, glory, and sovereign power are given to him. There he hears our prayers and pleads our cause before the Father.”

Tune Information

C Major
Meter D


Hymn Story/Background

With the encouragement of his fellow graduating classmates, Ernest W. Shurtleff wrote this text in 1887 for Andover Theological Seminary's commencement ceremonies, initially laced with war imagery but then fortunately moves to the biblical images of “deeds of love and mercy” in Christian service and eschatological hope. Winning immediate acclaim, the text was published in Shurtleff's Hymns of the Faith that same year. Since that publication it has appeared in many American hymnals.
Graduation is one milestone on our life's journey, a road sign that points to the future as much as it marks the end of formal education. Consequently, "Lead On, O King Eternal" is a battle call to go forward in Christian service. Initially laced with war imagery, the text moves on to biblical imagery—deeds of love and mercy"—and concludes with a note of eschatological hope. This message is as urgent today as it was a hundred years ago.
LANCASHIRE is a suitably rousing march tune to accompany this text. Henry T. Smart composed the tune in 1835 for use at a missions festival at Blackburn, Lancashire, England. For that festival, which celebrated the three-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in England, the tune was set to Reginald Heber's “From Greenland's Icy Mountains.” First printed in leaflets, LANCASHIRE was published In Smart's Psalms and Hymns for Divine Worship (1867). It was set to Shurtleffs text in the 1905 Methodist Hymnal. In some hymnals this tune is associated with "The Day of Resurrection."
Henry T. Smart’s rousing march tune fits the text well; note particularly the musical animation in the third phrase. Initially cast over a static bass, LANCASHIRE becomes quite animated in its third phrase. Sing and accompany with much energy and rhythmic vitality.
— Bert Polman

Author Information

Before studying at Andover, Ernest W. Shurtleff (Boston, MA, 1862; d. Paris, France, 1917) attended Harvard University. He served Congregational churches in Ventura, California; Old Plymouth, Massachusetts; and Minneapolis, Minnesota, before moving to Europe. In 1905 he established the American Church in Frankfurt, and in 1906 he moved to Paris, where he was involved in student ministry at the Academy Vitti. During World War I he and his wife were active in refugee relief work in Paris. Shurtleff wrote a number of books, including Poems (1883), Easter Gleams (1885), Song of Hope (1886), and Song on the Waters (1913).
— Bert Polman

Composer Information

Henry T. Smart (b. Marylebone, London, England, 1813; d. Hampstead, London, 1879) gave up a career in the legal profession for one in music. Although largely self taught, he became proficient in organ playing and composition, and he was a music teacher and critic. Organist in a number of London churches, including St. Luke's, Old Street (1844-1864), and St. Pancras (1864-1869), Smart was famous for his extemporiza­tions and for his accompaniment of congregational singing. He became completely blind at the age of fifty-two, but his remarkable memory enabled him to continue playing the organ. Fascinated by organs as a youth, Smart designed organs for impor­tant places such as St. Andrew Hall in Glasgow and the Town Hall in Leeds. He composed an opera, oratorios, part-songs, some instrumental music, and many hymn tunes, as well as a large number of works for organ and choir. He edited the Choralebook (1858), the English Presbyterian Psalms and Hymns for Divine Worship (1867), and the Scottish Presbyterian Hymnal (1875). Some of his hymn tunes were first published in Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861).
— Bert Polman

Song Notes

In his book, The Gospel in Hymns, Albert Bailey describes very eloquently the function of this hymn when he writes, “It is the eager cry of the knight who has been kneeling through the hours of darkness in vigil at the altar where his sword and armor are being impregnated with the power of heaven, and who now with the dawn rises to receive the accolade of his King and goes forth to combat.” We probably don’t think about our faith like this too often.  Quite frankly, we most likely don’t know how to make sense of this. How do we reconcile between the peaceful Christ and the seemingly war-driven God of the Old Testament? How can we claim to desire a world of peace when we talk in such violent language? These are questions Christians around the world wrestle with. But we shouldn’t stay away from such language because we don’t fully understand it. Part of our task is to remember that language is just that - only words. We talk in imagery. When we say we are putting on the armor of God, we know that we are clothing ourselves with love, righteousness, and good deeds. When we invoke the God of conquest, we know we are asking God to use us in a fight against spiritual evils, not physical. Perhaps the second verse of this hymn says it best: “For not with sword’s loud clashing / or roll of stirring drums / with deeds of love and mercy / the heavenly kingdom comes.”
— Laura de Jong