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Among the great hymns of the cross, Sir John Bowring’s classic, “In the cross of Christ I glory,” occupies a foremost place. This is all the more remarkable when we are reminded that Bowring was known as a Unitarian, a communion which not only denies the deity of Christ, but ignores the true significance of the cross. And yet he has given us a hymn that every evangelical Christian rejoices to sing, for it is a hymn that magnifies the cross and makes it the very center of the Christian religion.

In justice to Bowring it ought to be stated that he himself was “a devoted and evangelical believer,” and that his connection with the Unitarian Church was merely accidental and nominal. When he died, in 1872, the opening line of his famous hymn was inscribed in bold letters upon his tombstone:

In the Cross of Christ I Glory

Knowing these things, every true Christian will cherish an inner conviction that the man who wrote so beautiful a tribute to Christ and the cross did not really die but only fell asleep, trusting in the atoning death of a Saviour who is God.

Bowring was a learned man, especially famed as a linguist. He is said to have been able to speak twenty-two languages fluently, and was able to converse in at least one hundred different tongues. He found special delight in translating poems from other languages. His published works contain translations from Bohemian, Slavonic, Russian, Servian, 334 Polish, Slovakian, Illyrian, Teutonic, Esthonian, Dutch, Frisian, Lettish, Finnish, Hungarian, Biscayan, French, Provencal, Gascon, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalonian and Galician sources.

Sir John was particularly fond of the study of hymns. Even at the age of eighty years he was said to begin the day with some new song of thanksgiving.

In addition to all his other accomplishments, Bowring had a very distinguished career in English politics. He was twice a member of the British parliament. Later he became consul general for the English government at Hong Kong, China. During this period he chanced to sail down the Chinese coast to Macao, where nearly 400 years earlier the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, had built an imposing cathedral. The structure had been wrecked by a typhoon, but the tower still remained, and surmounting it a great bronze cross, sharply outlined against the sky. Far above the wreckage surrounding it, the cross seemed to Bowring to be a symbol of Christ’s Kingdom, glorious and eternal, living through the centuries while other kingdoms have come and gone. So inspired was he by the sight, the words of the hymn seemed to suggest themselves to him at once, and in a short while a famous poem had been written.

The plan of the hymn is interesting. The first stanza declares the cross of Christ to be the central fact in divine revelation and the one theme in which the Christian never ceases to glory. The second stanza pictures the cross as the Christian’s refuge and comfort in time of affliction, while the third tells how it also adds luster to the days of joy and sunshine. The final stanza summarizes these two ideas, and the hymn closes by telling of the eternal character of the peace and joy that flow from the cross.


An interesting story is told of this hymn in connection with the Boxer uprising in China. All foreigners in Peking had been besieged by the infuriated Chinese for several weeks. When the allied troops finally reached the city and the terrible strain was ended, the Christian missionaries gathered in the Temple of Heaven, the remarkable pagan shrine where the Emperor of China was accustomed to worship, and, lifting up their voices in thanksgiving, the messengers of the cross sang:

In the cross of Christ I glory,

Towering o’er the wrecks of time;

All the light of sacred story

Gathers round its head sublime.

Sir John Bowring eventually became governor of Hong Kong, and wielded great influence in the Orient. He did much to promote Christian benevolences and other enterprises for the good of the peoples in the Far East. When his health began to fail, his friends warned him to cease some of his activities, but in vain. His answer was, “I must do my work while life remains to me; I may not long be here.”

He was often gratified to hear his hymns sung at unexpected times and in unusual places. In 1825 he wrote a poem beginning with the words, “Watchman, tell us of the night.” He did not know it was being used as a hymn until ten years later, when he heard it sung by Christian missionaries in Turkey. Among other hymns of Bowring that have come into general use is the beautiful one beginning with the words:

God is Love; His mercy brightens

All the path in which we rove;

Bliss He wakes, and woe He lightens:

God is Wisdom, God is Love.

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