All hymns have a story, and that is in part the reason I write these posts. I love stories and I love music, so why not combine them? But there are some that stand out to me as special gems among the records on history. I have only recently been made aware of this hymn. I thought it odd that it only had one verse. Surely there must be more to the story! And indeed, there is.
Thomas Hansen Kingo, the author of this lyric, was born in December of 1634 in Slangerup, Denmark. As his name might suggest, Kingo’s family was not from Denmark, but his family had lived there ever since his grandfather and namesake moved the family from Scotland nearly 45 years before Thomas’ birth. Thomas’ grandfather was a weaver, a trade he passed onto his son Hans. Hans married a woman named Karen, and it was to this family Thomas was born. As a boy, Thomas enjoyed writing a variety of poems, typically comical in nature or of a pastoral theme. He and his talents were born at just the right time, for though the Thirty Years War was in full swing, the Baroque period was just beginning to blossom in Europe, the period which is, in my opinion, one of the best in the history of the arts.
Thomas went to a Latin school near his home starting from the tender age of 6. After nine years, he moved to a new school in a nearby city. Though his education seemed to discourage his gifts than encourage, it was at this later school that Thomas grew to love Danish poetry and language in general. After graduating, Thomas went to university in Copenhagen – though he left briefly during a plague that frequented Europe during this time – where he was trained in theology, eventually becoming a teacher there. He was ordained in 1661 and later became a bishop at Fyn by the order of Danish King Christian V.
During all this time, Thomas Kingo wrote a variety of poetry. Some were those pastoral lyrics as a country boy would write, others were patriotic, but most were long, beautiful hymns. A portion of these were gathered in a set of books called Aandelig sjunge-kor or the “Spiritual Chorus” and published between 1674-1681. He tried to publish another hymnal in 1689, but part of it was denied by their king. At this same time, Kingo wrote the words to the hymn “Skriv dig, Jesu, paa mit Hjerte”, a verse from the source text for the hymn “On my heart imprint Thine image”. The rest of his hymnbook was published ten years later in Kingos Psalmebog. These hymns are still sung in both hymnbooks and folk melodies to this day.
Kingo eventually returned to his hometown and served as a pastor there. Here he married the widow of the former pastor, becoming a stepfather as well. Sadly, his new wife and his father died the following year. Facing difficulties with his children and finances, he moved to become a rector at that same school he attended as a child. Unfortunately, one of Kingo’s older stepsons despised his new father, provoking a battle of poetry that lasted for years until this son, Jacob, offended the royal family and was to be hanged. But after appealing to his stepfather, he was only exiled to India.
Thomas Kingo continued serving his flock, family, and the Lord through the rest of his life. He passed away in October 1703, leaving behind him the legacy of God’s servant and master hymn writer. His works are the shining jewel of Danish and Baroque poetry and hymns. As with the source of the hymn “On my heart imprint Thine image”, his works were big and bold and beautiful. They were fitting for the Baroque period. Kingo’s hymns look at both Old and New Testament themes, combine law and Gospel, include elements of nature and the private life, tell a story with as many words needed, but in a way that is beautiful, precise, and memorable. While this hymn is a mere stanza, there is little wonder why it was chosen to be included, even on its own, in the pages on modern hymnbooks.
Now there are two different musical compositions that this text is typically set to. The first is called “Der Am Kreuz” and it is what you will find in Lutheran hymnals, though it is actually used less frequently overall. The second is GENEVAN 42. There is technically a third called “Freu dich sehr” found with the original, but it is not widely used, if at all, today.
The GENEVAN 42, named for the 42nd psalm, was composed by Claude Goudimel in 1551. He lived from 1505 until 1572, composing a variety of tunes for Genevan hymns, though used by all denominations. He also composed polyphonic music and published the Genevan Psalter in 1562. Previous psalters, and specifically one involving this composition, were edited by contemporary Louis Bourgeois, a fellow Heugenot and friend of Calvin. Not all loved his music, and he was briefly jailed for his compositions and set free only because of Calvin. Sadly, Goudimel, a Frenchman and Calvinist, was murdered during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
The second tune, “Der Am Kreuz,” literally “the one on the cross,” was composed by Johann Balthasar König in 1738. König was born to a tanner in 1691. He lived in a little town not far from where Luther began the Reformation in what was then the Holy Roman Empire. He ended up working as a chorister in Frankfurt in 1707, joined a band as a cellist under George Philipp Teleman, and by 1717 married Anna Maria Pfaff. He was a musician and singer, but he also composed cantatas, operas, royal themes, and hymn melodies
König was the editor of a prominent choral book called Harmonischer Lieder-Schatz oder Allgemeines evangelisches Ohoral-buch, which was published the same year as the tune in question. Apparently, there was a need to remedy “evil singing,” or rather, singing that was discordant. In response, he had the organist play the melody of the song before the congregation began the first verse so that the congregation could follow the music. This became the “protocol of the Lutheran Consistory” after 1744. While his choral book complied tunes from the past, and not all were German or even Lutheran, this work and other compositions of König were of the height of Baroque music. The book contains nearly two thousand tunes, and he wrote much more than what was contained in those pages. Shortly after his marriage, König moved to work at the Katharinenkirche in Frankfurt, another marvel of the Baroque period, which stands to this day. He continued his work here with his family until his death in the spring of 1758.
Our English translation of this hymn comes to us from Peer Olsen Stromme. Stromme was born in Wisconsin on September 15, 1856, to Hans and Elin, immigrants from Norway. He was raised in the church, married Laura Marie Ericksen, and was educated at the Luther College in Iowa, continuing his studies at the St. Lewis Seminary. After ordination in 1879, he taught at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Over the years he worked for a couple of schools, a handful of newspapers and magazines, and wrote a few novels, most of which dealt with his experience as a child of immigrants and Norwegians in America. Despite their American publication, most of his writings were in his familial tongue.
Unsurprisingly, Stromme also worked on some translations, including the single verse “On my heart imprint Thine image,” which was published in 1898. This verse was taken from the original Sweedish poem “Christ’s Crucifixion, Suffering, and Death”. As implied by the title, this entire hymn was to be sung on Good Friday, though churches typically use the single-verse hymn throughout Lent. Stromme took the fifteenth verse and translated it for our hymnals today. Since then, it has progressively become more popular. This, coupled with “Der Am Kreuz” gave us the hymn that we know today. Stromme died on his birthday in 1921.
On my heart imprint your image,
Blessed Jesus, king of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation!
As mentioned above, this hymn is part of a longer hymn. A twenty-nine verse hymn, in fact. In it, Kingo follows the story of Christ on Good Friday, though it begins with a word to the congregation in preparation for what they will see in the Scripture reading and in the hymn itself. The message is this: we were lost and condemned sinners, Christ suffered terribly for us, and we should forever praise Him, our Saviour! This verse finds itself half-way through the text. At this point, Jesus is on the cross, mocked, bloodied, suffering. This suffering will continue to be described in the following verses, thanks and praise woven throughout. But first, the singer looks up to his Savior and desperately asks Him to make him Christ’s.
The hymn begins with imagery from Genesis and the Gospels. In whose image are we made? Whose is on us? It is God’s, for we were made in the image of God and we are His (Gen. 1:26-27, Mat. 22:20-21, Psa. 100:3, Acts 17:28). Moreover, we were baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27). We know this from both our birth and rebirth. But in looking up at our suffering Savior on the cross, we ask that His image may be put on our hearts as well so that we might look only as Christ does and walk fully in His grace and truth (Lam. 3:22, Rom. 3:22-26).
For we know the temptations in this world. We know that in daily life we forget our sin and our redemption, we forget our ever-present need for God. We let cares and pleasures overtake our hearts and minds. In previous versions of this hymn, the fourth line went, “Have no power Thee to efface.” While this can also mean erase, efface means something closer to “insignificant”. So we know that we are made in God’s image, and we are sometimes reminded of our baptism, but we ask that His image be imprinted, stamped, sealed, engraved onto our hearts that we might not make light of, diminish, or neglect the fact that our God redeemed us, body and soul, purchased us with His blood (1 Cor. 6:11, 6:20, 7:23, Rom. 6:3, 13:14, Eph. 2:1-5, 4:30).
The next line used to have different wording as well: “This the superscription be:”. Not just an inscription, though this is fine. But that is more what the first line was trying to imply. This line was saying, “I want this written above my heart, above me. I want people to see THIS when they look at me.” And what is that written above us, on us, when people look at us? They see “Jesus, crucified for me” (Mat. 5:16, Luk. 23:38, 1Pet. 2:12, Phil. 3:10). We ask God to imprint His image on us so that we might live for Him and that the title of that image might be what Christ has done for us. We want people to see Christ in us. We remember this in our baptism, in the sacrament of the altar, but we want it visible in our lives as well. How we need His aid!
But there is more to this title. For the superscription is that Jesus was crucified for me, but also He is our life, the foundation for our hope, the one in whom we glory, and our salvation (Psa. 42:11, Lam. 3:24, Eph. 4:24, 2 Pet. 1:4, Heb. 6:17-20). HE is who gives us all of these things and more! His image is in us, on us, and His waters of rebirth poured over us. We have been washed and redeemed. Because Christ rose again, we have eternal life. Halleluiah! We have hope in this world! Yes, this is a song for Lent, and it is a brief hymn of a single verse, but this is a message for our daily lives. Christ was crucified for us, His work is constantly working in us. Let us then walk in faith, in hope, and in His grace, trusting in Him who is in us and in our hearts until the day of His coming.
Blessings to you and yours,
Aagot D. Hoidahl. Norwegian-American Fiction, 1880-1928. Vol. V.
Jens Aaberg. “Chapter Three – Kingo’s Childhood and Youth.” Hymns and Hymnwriters of Denmark.
“On My Heart Imprint Thine Image.” The Lutheran Hymnal. #179.
“On My Heart Imprint Your Image.” Lutheran Worship. #100.
“Thomas Kingo.” Encyclopedia Britannica.