History of Hymns: ‘At the Name’ expresses self-emptying of Christ

“At the Name of Jesus”
Caroline Noel
UM Hmnal
, No. 168

At the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
every tongue confess him
King of glory now;
’tis the Father’s pleasure
we should call him Lord,
who from the beginning
was the mighty Word.

 Hymns often magnify Scripture. Caroline Noel’s “At the Name of Jesus” does this for the great kenosis hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11. Kenosis, or the self-emptying of Christ, is the theme of this New Testament hymn.

This hymn conveys the essence of the entire earthly journey of Christ from his incarnation as an infant in Bethlehem, through his ministry and crucifixion, and concludes with his resurrection and ascension.

C. Michael Hawn

C. Michael Hawn

The Bible contains many canticles and hymns beyond the psalms. For example, Exodus, Deuteronomy and Luke include great canticles that contain a sense of the faith heritage to be remembered in coming generations. New Testament hymns are usually creedal in content—sung versions from the emerging Christian church about what it believes based on the witness of Christ’s life. Perhaps the most important of these is the hymn found in Philippians 2.

The confessional quality of this hymn is very apparent. Noel’s paraphrase draws its opening line from verse 10 of the text in the King James Version. The entire passage follows:

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Born in London in 1817, Noel was the daughter of a vicar in the Church of England. She died in London in 1877. Though she began writing hymns at an early age, she stopped when she was 20 years old and didn’t resume hymn writing until 20 years later in 1857. The last 25 years of her life were spent as an invalid. The Name of Jesus and Other Verses for the Sick and Lonely was published in 1861. Later editions were titled The Name of Jesus and Other Poems.

The original hymn contained eight stanzas. While no hymnal includes all eight stanzas, it is difficult to delete any without damaging the continuity of the narrative. The original stanza two (not included in the UM Hymnal), for example, establishes Jesus as a part of the Godhead with echoes of the Nicene Creed:

Mighty and mysterious
in the highest height,
God from everlasting,
very Light of Light;
In the Father’s bosom,
with the Spirit blest,
Love, in love eternal,
rest, in perfect rest.

The New Testament kenosis hymn is the genesis of many hymns throughout the centuries that focus on the name of Jesus and the comfort and power of that name.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Charles Wesley suggests the comfort of Jesus’ name in the third stanza of “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”: “Jesus, the name that charms our fears. . . .” Later in the 18th century, the famous Anglican hymn writer John Newton began a well-known hymn, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear.” Eighteenth-century American hymn writer Edward Perronet begins his hymn in this vein: “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” (UM Hymnal, No. 154). Many references to Jesus’ name are found in the gospel song genre, for example, Gloria and Bill Gaither’s “There’s Something About That Name” (UM Hymnal, No. 171).

While many hymns allude to one aspect of the Philippians passage, none of these hymns matches Noel’s poem for its thorough paraphrase of the entire biblical creed.

Eminent English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote his venerable tune, KING’S WESTON, for this text in 1931 for Songs of Praise Enlarged. The dignity of Vaughan Williams’ musical setting fits perfectly with the majesty of the scriptural paraphrase. Almost all hymnals now maintain this text/tune pairing.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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