The hymn “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone” was based on the words of Thomas Shepherd in 1693, but the music was composed by George Allen in 1844. The song was arranged by George Allen in The Oberlin Social and Sabbath School Hymnbook of 1844 which Allen is credited with compiling.
Thomas Shepherd (1665-1739), Lyricist
Thomas Shepherd was the son of what one sourced called a “Non-conformist minister in England” whose name was William Shepherd. Shepherd joined the Church of England but seceded from it in 1694. He preceded the famed Philip Doddridge at the Castle Hill Meeting House in Nottingham, England, but he would eventually move on in 1700 to Bocking, England where he started the work there preaching in a barn. He worked with this congregation for the remainder of his life.
Shepherd published one of his works entitled “The Sinner’s Cry For Universal Obedience” in his Penitential Cries in 1693. This would be the basis for the hymn we sing today. There are more verses in the poem than appear in our songbook too. This song is by far his most popular. The words were changed some from the original. For example, the first stanza was “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.” Who exactly changed the words of the hymn is uncertain. Even the version of the hymn of 1844, the first lines of the third verse were “I’ll bear the consecrated cross, Till from the cross I’m free….” He is credited with nearly 40 hymns, but he was known more for his published sermons in his day. Unfortunately many of the records concerning his life have been lost.
Thomas Shepherd died on January 29, 1739. He was buried at End Congregational Church, Braintree, Essex, England.
George Nelson Allen (1812-1877), Composer
George Nelson Allen was born September 7, 1812 in Mansfield, MA to Otis Allen and Susanna Deane. He attended the Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio before going on to graduate from Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College) in 1838. Prior to leaving home, he was also able to study under Lowell Mason. He became the Professor of Sacred Music at Oberlin during which he completed the music for this hymn. He was an accomplished violinist and pianist too. Incidentally, he also taught Geology and Natural History at Oberlin College. He was a part of the famous geological expedition by Ferdinand Vandever Hayden of what would become Yellowstone National Park. His impact on music at Oberlin College is well documented.
He was married to Caroline Mary Rudd, and she was called Mary. She was one of three women to receive the A. B. degree in 1841. Her life would spawn a woman’s equality movement in Oberlin College and beyond. They had five children: Frederic DeForest Allen (1844-1897), Alice Woodworth Allen (1846-1910) George Mantell Allen (1848-1922), Rosa Dale Allen (1851-1926), and Carrie Nelson Allen (1854-1925). All five of their children studied at Oberlin College, so the Allen’s family is very connected with this institution.
The name of the tune is MAITLAND. Apparently the hymn became popular after Henry Ward Beecher published it in his Plymouth Collection a decade later. In Beecher’s work, they referred to the tune as Cross and Crown, and it was also referred to as the Western Melody too. The tune was adapted by Thomas A. Dorsey for his hymn “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” as well. He published a 3x4 inch hymnbook that was very popular in his day and many were encouraged to carry it with them. Imagine someone carrying a hymnbook in their shirt pocket today! Allen compiled at least two hymnbooks plus the music to a few hymns.
He retired in 1864 in Cincinnati to live closer to his son, and he died on December 9, 1877. He is buried in Oberlin at the Westwood Cemetery in Lorain County, Ohio.
Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone
Jesus warned His disciples as He prepared to go to Jerusalem that He would be betrayed and crucified; c.f. Matthew 26:2. Crucifixion was an invention of the Persian Empire, used by Alexander the Great, but it has also been said that the Roman Empire perfected it before Constantine outlawed it out of respect for Jesus in 337 A.D. (Some historians doubt Constantine’s ban and claim that crucifixions did not end then.) Be sure to know that the practice is still being used to strike fear and dread in some societies. Some historians point out that pagans used symbolic crosses as a way to intimidate Christians before it would become part of Christian art. Crucifixion was designed to cause the most excruciating death known to man. So painful was its design that our term “excruciating” comes from the word crucifixion! The Messiah’s rejection was prophesied in the Old Testament as were several details of His death. The premillennial notion that the rejection of Jesus by the Jews was unanticipated is absolutely false and readily apparent to those who have studied Old Testament prophecy accordingly.
There is no doubt that Jesus taught we must bear our own cross before we will receive the crown of life. Some fail to realize that Christianity comes with great costs. Notice these words by Jesus—“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 10:34-39, NKJV.) Jesus is not referring to the carnal weapon of a sword but to the fact that people will have to choose Him even if other family members refuse to accept Him.
This was not the only time that Jesus advised His disciples of this. Later, Jesus after He rebuked Peter for denying the fact of Jesus approaching crucifixion, stated “Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (Matthew 16:24-27, NKJV.)
It would be an appropriate reminder of the words that precedes the “crown of life” in Revelation 2:10—“Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (NKJV.) We may not face persecution as the church Smyrna was about to face; however, we are warned that even with old age there are difficult days too—“Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, Before the difficult days come, And the years draw near when you say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1, NKJV.) Some people sentenced to be executed by the cross died prior during the flogging, while others lingered on crosses for considerable time before they expired. Similarly, we do not know how long our lives will be or what we will endure during our lives here.
We must count the cost before we decide to become a Christian, but we also must be sure to recognize the great dividends that are to be paid in reward by Jesus at His coming. Remember, Jesus promised us more than eternal existence but eternal life!
Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1937, pp. 313-314.
Frank Paris, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone?” Curtis Cates, Editor, Lessons in Lyrics, Memphis, TN: Memphis School of Preaching, 1998, pp. 520-530.
V. E. Howard, Editor, and Broadus E. Smith, Associate Editor, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Texarkana, TX: Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN: Praise Press, 1997.