August 18, 2017

Lead on, O King Eternal

Edited from the files of Grace W. Haight

Guye Johnson

Created in 1887 for the commencement exercise at Andover Theological Seminary (Andover, Massachusetts), this spirited prayer-hymn, with its “day of march,” “days of preparation,” “journey,” “conquest,” and “crown,” is appropriate for the graduation season.

One of the candidates for degree that year was Ernest Warburton Shurtleff. When the class of ‘87 met to discuss imageways of making their commencement distinctive, someone suggested that Ernest write a special hymn for the class to sing as they marched in to reo ceive their degrees. Ernest, a young man who already had two volumes of poetry to his credit, met the challenge with willingness and capability. “Lead On, O King Eternal” was the result.

Such words as “march,” “fields of conquest,” “tents,” and “battle song” lead most hymnologists to agree that this song is unchallenged as the Christian’s victory theme. The author’s description of the consecrated Christian as an obedient soldier of the cross echoes Paul’s admonition to Timothy in II Timothy 2:1-3: “Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus … endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

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Ernest Warburton Shurtleff was born in Boston on April 4, 1862. He was educated at Harvard and Andover. While at Andover he played the organ and sang for Sunday services.

In addition to holding pastorates in widely separated parts of the United States, Shurtleff also organized an American Church at Frankfort-on-theMain, Germany, in 1895. At the Academy Vitti in Paris (1906-1912), he had charge of the Students’ Atelier Reunions. Because of his outstanding contributions to music and preaching, he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity by Ripon College.

When World War I began, Dr. Shurtleff and his wife, Helen, devoted themselves to relief work. This was Dr. Shurtleff’s last field of service. Though he died in 1917, his testimony has lived on. Men have said of him, “He was not only a talented man; he was also a kind man-a goodwill ambassador for the Lord.”

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Henry Smart; a former law-train.ee who abandoned a four-year law study for music, wrote the tune to which “Lead On, O King Eternal” is usually sung. His family was not at all surprised when he joined their rich musical heritage. Smart, who lived from 1813 to 1879, descended from a long line of musicians-his father was a noted violinist, and his uncle was one of England’s best· known and best-loved organists and composers.

Despite Smart’s limited formal training, his personal studies enabled him to make great strides in music, winning high praise from music critics. He also designed and supervised the building and installation of organs.

“Lead On, O King Eternal” is indeed a zealous rallying theme. The men graduating at Andover, like all men, had no hope of winning the crown they longed for unless they realized the commitment the song implies. One must be a dedicated follower, totally given over to the winning of the battle, before he dare cry, “Lead on!” In this season of rebirth and beginnings, it is vital that one who gives himself to be a soldier of Christ truly dwell in the tents of his Lord, and follow Him not in the “spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7).


This article first appeared in Faith for the Family, May/June 1974 and is republished here by permission.


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