The head that once was crowned with thorns
Source: Singing the Faith: 312
Words: Thomas Kelly
Music: “St Magnus (Nottingham)” by Jeremiah Clarke
Metre: 86.86. Common Metre
Erik Routley, the hymn writer and musicologist, described this hymn as “perhaps the finest of all hymns; Thomas Kelly has here comprehended the whole Gospel, and he tells of the Good news and of the mysterious mercy by which we may lay hold of it” (‘Hymns and Human Life’, 1952).
It is possible that Kelly derived his first line from a poem by John Bunyan, which includes the lines (in the same Common Metre as Kelly’s hymn):
“The head that once was crowned with thorns
Shall now with glory shine;
That heart that broken was with scorns
Shall flow with life divine.”
Thomas Kelly was ordained into the Church of Ireland in 1792. (He had been born in Kellyville in 1769 and would die in Dublin in 1855.) He became well known as a preacher but the Archbishop if Dublin eventually prohibited him from preaching in the diocese because of the evangelical emphasis of his message. As a result, Kelly left the Church of Ireland and preached as an independent minister in two unconsecrated buildings in Dublin. Those who followed him were known as ‘The Kellyites’.
Thomas Kelly’s life has echoes of the brothers John and Charles Wesley. Like John, he also formed congregations in other towns, became active in many good causes, and was particularly esteemed by the poor; like Charles, he was a prolific hymn writer. (One blogger, Fred Sanders, has referred to Kelly as “the Charles Wesley of Ireland”.) Kelly’s ‘Hymns on Various Passages in Scripture’ went through a number of editions during his lifetime and, by the last printing in his lifetime, it included 765 texts. As well as “The head that once was crowned with thorns”, these included “We sing the praise of him who died, / Of him who died upon the cross”.